Critical theory took a serious beating during the culture wars of the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 2000s were only worse. Under Bush the demand for affirmation was all but total, and today there is little space for critique even in the universities and the museums. Bullied by conservative commentators, most academics no longer stress the importance of critical thinking for an engaged citizenry, and, dependent on corporate sponsors, most curators no longer promote the critical debate once deemed essential to the public reception of advanced art. Indeed, the sheer out-of-date-ness of criticism in an art world that couldn’t care less seems evident enough. Yet what are the options on offer? Celebrating beauty? Affirming affect? Hoping for a “redistribution of the sensible”? Trusting in “the general intellect”? The post-critical condition is supposed to release us from our straightjackets (historical, theoretical, and political), yet for the most part it has abetted a relativism that has little to do with pluralism.
How did we arrive at the point where critique is so broadly dismissed? Over the years most of the charges have concerned the positioning of the critic. First, there was a rejection of judgment, of the moral right presumed in critical evaluation. Then, there was a refusal of authority, of the political privilege that allows the critic to speak abstractly on behalf of others. Finally, there was skepticism about distance, about the cultural separation from the very conditions that the critic purports to examine. “Criticism is a matter of correct distancing,” Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street (1928). “It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to adopt a standpoint. Now things press too urgently on human society.” How much more urgent is this pressing today?
Yet not all critique depends on correct distancing. Estrangement à la Brecht is not correct in this sense, and there are interventionist models in art (from Dada to the present) in which critique is produced immanently (e.g., Situationist détournement). As for the other old charges (which come mostly from the Left), they boil down to two in the end: critique is driven by a will to power, and it is not reflexive about its own claims to truth. Often enough two fears drive these two accusations: on the one hand, a concern about the critic as “ideological patron” who displaces the very group or class that he represents (the famous caution given by Benjamin in “Author as Producer” ); and, on the other, a concern about the scientific truth ascribed to critical theory in opposition to “spontaneous ideology” (the dubious position assumed by Althusser in his re-reading of Marx). Such fears are not misbegotten, but are they reason enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
More recent attacks, especially on the critique of representation and the critique of the subject, have operated through guilt by association. Rather than too confident of its truth, the critique of representation was said to sap truth-value as such, and so to promote moral indifference and political nihilism. The critique of the subject was also charged with unintended consequences, as its demonstration of the constructed nature of identity was said to abet a consumerism of subject-positions (e.g., multiculturalism repackaged as “The United Colors of Benetton”). For many these two outcomes count as postmodernism tout court, which is to be condemned outright as a result. Yet this is a caricature that reduces postmodernism to the rote expression of neoliberal capitalism (i.e., as neoliberalism deregulated the economy, so postmodernism derealized the culture).
More pointed questions about critique have come from Bruno Latour, who focuses on his field of science studies, and Jacques Rancière, who focuses on his hobbyhorse of contemporary art. For Latour the critic pretends to an enlightened knowledge that allows him to demystify the fetishistic belief of naïve others—to demonstrate how this belief is a “projection of their wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself.”1 Here the fatal mistake of the critic is not to turn this anti-fetishistic gaze on his own belief, that is, his own fetish of demystification, a mistake that renders him the most naïve of all. Latour concludes:
This is why you can be at once and without even sensing any contradiction (1) an antifetishist for everything you don’t believe in—for the most part religion, popular culture, art, politics, and so on; (2) an unrepentant positivist for all the sciences you believe in—sociology, economics, conspiracy theory, genetics, evolutionary psychology, semiotics, just pick your preferred field of study; and (3) a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish—and of course it might be criticism itself, but also painting, bird-watching, Shakespeare, baboons, proteins, and so on.2
For Rancière, too, critique is compromised by its dependence on demystification. “In its most general expression,” he writes, “critical art is a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation.”3 Yet not only is awareness not transformative per se, Rancière continues, but “the exploited rarely require an explanation of the laws of exploitation.” Moreover, critical art “asks viewers to discover the signs of capital behind everyday objects and behaviors,” but in so doing only confirms the “transformation of things into signs” that capital performs. Like the critic for Latour, the critical artist for Rancière is trapped in a vicious circle.
Yet much the same can be said of these two meta-critics. Latour replays the ur-critical move of Marx and Freud, who argued as follows: “You moderns think you are enlightened, but in fact you are as fetishistic as any primitives—fetishists not only of the commodity but of any object you desire inappropriately.” To this reversal Latour now adds his own: “You anti-fetishistic critics are also fetishists—fetishists of your own cherished method or discipline.” To this extent, then, he remains within the rhetorical coils of the very critique he wants to cut.
Rancière joins in this challenge to the hermeneutics of suspicion at work in critique à la the Frankfurt School. Yet not only is this challenge a familiar one within critical theory; it was also fundamental to its own shift from a search for hidden meanings to a consideration of “the conditions of possibility” of discourse (as in Foucault), of the significance of textual surface (as in Barthes), and so on. Moreover, Rancière condemns critique for its projection of a passive spectator in need of activation (this is his version of the naïve believer in need of demystification), yet he, too, assumes this passivity when he calls for such activation beyond mere awareness.4 Finally, his “redistribution of the sensible” is a panacea, and, when pitted against the capitalist “transformation of things into signs,” it is little more than wishful thinking, the new opiate of the art world Left.
1. Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 237.
2. Ibid., 241.
3. Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. Steven Cochran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 46-47.
4. See Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London and New York: Verso, 2009).