Roundtable: Critique

On January 21, a roundtable discussion on the history and current meaning of critique

Credit: Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault; picture by Elie Kagan

took place at Spektrum in Berlin. The event was organized and moderated by Dennis Schep (Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule). Participants were:

Luce deLire (Philosophy and German and Romance Languages and Literatures, Johns Hopkins University)

Hansun Hsiung (Max-Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte)

Jule Govrin (Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule)

Jan-Philipp Kruse (Rechts- und Verfassungstheorie, TU Dresden)

The afternoon began with preliminary provocations from each participant. What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of the subsequent audience discussion only. A full audio recording, including the presenters’ preliminary provocations, can be found here.

Luce: Several years ago, I had a wonderful workshop with Jasbir Puar, who claimed that Google is always one step ahead. What she meant was that the agents of capitalism and industry are probably faster than we are because of their resources. Something similar might be true of the right wing. Right wing forces aggressively use mainstream journalistic media, and are very explicit about it; just look at the manifesto that was recently published at Breitbart. For them it’s much easier to address complicity (which can be defined as the tacit but unquestionable acceptance of authority) directly, rather than doing a detour through critique. It might be that these forces are currently at least half a step ahead of us.

When I said we should give up on critique and join this arms race, JPK argued for returning to civil society and repairing the receptivity to real judgment. But when thought gets commodified in the form of opinion, I don’t see much ground for the process JPK was describing. Property is the realization of negative freedom, and negative freedom is the absence of external interference: when there’s nothing standing between me and the fridge, I have negative freedom to go to the fridge. Now, if you apply negative freedom to thought, you enter the realm of opinion; I can exempt everyone else from the usage of my thought. If you look at what people say about why they voted for Trump, you frequently encounter fear of debate and an unwillingness to enter into any kind of argumentation – hence an appeal to opinion. I think this commodification of thought in the form of opinion prevents the kind of return to judgment that JPK proposed.

JPK: I agree with much of your diagnosis. But we do have a model for the healing of judgment, and that is education. The opposite perspective is heuristically very interesting and powerful, but as a model for social entities, the category of complicity is an abstraction. It comes in degrees. There are still pieces of discourse and of the interconnection between several discourses that can be reconstructed as rational. Look at the connection between political systems and the quality press: it’s a good thing to have Die Zeit and Der Spiegel. They are not perfect, they may be biased, but it would be worse if they were not there. The history of capitalism is a history of poisoning judgment. On that point, we do not disagree. Perhaps we do disagree about how to solve this.

Jule: Critique is often traced back to secularism and the Enlightenment. Now, we have yet another crisis of critique in the rise of post-secular politics, where religion returns as an essential reference in the discussion about the alleged Christian European values. How is this related to desire and sexuality? The last big crisis of critique took place in the years around ‘68: the rise of post-structuralism, but also the years of the sexual revolution, which was not just a student revolt, but a moment of collective belief in desire as a subversive and emancipatory force. People believed that sexuality was not just a promise of individuality and happiness, but that the liberation of desire would lead to a restructuring of society. This project failed, and the critical thoughts of post-structuralism were appropriated by neoliberal think tanks. Some sexologists claim that the belief in sexual desire as a promise of happiness failed, and consequently, that the backlash towards stable values and sexual conservatism offered by religion is partly motivated by a disappointment about ‘68.

Hansun: I want to disentangle critique, as a secular concept, from radicalism in general. It’s perfectly possible to embrace radical values without embracing secular critique. Look at the English Civil War: part of what’s going on there is the rise of radical dissenting Protestant factions: the Quakers, the Diggers, etc. A lot of them are advocating what we think would be radical politics: sexual liberation, the abolition of property. And yet, one of their motivating claims is that God speaks to them directly, without the intervention of the church. Their belief, their moral economy, and what it meant to be radical was not disentangled from their faith. We should thus be cautious about assuming an identity between radical politics and secular critique. At any rate, our problem today is not whether something is religious or not, but the way religion has become identified with a certain map of the world. Disentangling religion from the civilizational map we have of Christian European values versus non-European others is more important than secularity in itself.

Dennis: I think on this panel there are several definitions of what critique actually is, so I would like to take a step back and think of what requirements need to be fulfilled for a disourse to be a critical discourse. I think it begins with indignation about the status quo, or about the unbearable conditions one is confronted with. But critique is more than than: it also requires a minimal level of rationality, which is now threatened by echo chambers, by post-truth, by Facebook, etc. And perhaps it requires a minimal analysis of social conditions. But does it require a vision of social totality or of historical teleology? Or can critique also be localized – I think here of the work of Foucault, whose definition of critique does not include a coherent view of society.

Hansun: Critique does not necessarily require a positive notion of social totality, or of utopia. In the second half of the 20th century, there has been a resistance towards this classical notion of critique. My point, however, is that this generates a problem of norms. Where do we derive norms, if not from a positive vision of social totality or utopia?
Luce: Perhaps there are more thick and more thin notions of critique – but do we need a thick notion of critique at all?

Jule: Critique also involves a reflexion on one’s own position, as well as an understanding of the entanglements of power structures. If Trump uses his right of free speech to utter racist comments, that is not critique, as there is no reflection on power structures or his own complicity with them. If I make a feminist critique, I still have to reflect on the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, as well as on my own position and my own privileges, and recognize that i might have a blind spot towards certain power dynamics. This reflexive movement should be inherent to critique, which distinguishes critique from political utterances that use free speech to foster a racist agenda.

There is also a classism inscribed in the very notion of critique, which is something we clearly have to reflect upon, without taking a stance of anti-intellectualism. This classist structure is quite important, and it got us into the mess that we are facing at the moment.

Audience: There’s one elephant in the room. I hate to be an arch-materialist, but ultimately, who cares about a critique that has no salient power? It’s absolutely damaging for us in this cultural milieu, the degree to which we talk but do not act. And I don’t mean just the representational politics of demonstrations: I’m talking about how we are going to make a prototypical new government (or lack thereof); what sort of platforms we can appropriate for missions of sovereignty; what other models of economy we can formulate.

Jule: We have to analyze reactionary rhetorics in order to fight them, which is why I focused on that, but I agree completely: there is no point in reflexion without action. And demonstrations are important too; I suspected they were a form of protest of the past, but as we saw with PEGIDA, they can be quite effective. We should fight on many levels: critical discourse in the media, go out onto the streets; join a party.

Luce: It is curious that you called this ‘the elephant in the room,’ as it is precisely what me and Jule said. One of the interesting questions – one that won’t be solved tonight – is why we say the same thing in slightly different dialects, but we don’t understand each other, although we are from very similar backgrounds?
Audience: I was thinking about sensus communis and the idea of taking the perspective of others. We can criticize Trump, but perhaps we need to reclaim the notion of thinking from the perspective of others in order to move past a critical attitude that is caught up in reflexion. Sensus communis; say something about that.

Hansun: To go back to whether critique matters at all: on the one hand, the history of leftist theory is a history of the productivity of failure. Most major theories came out of a certain type of failure. But more than that, the point of critique and the reason to give it a thick definition is that critique is fundamentally a kind of method for articulating the private or particular – sex, race – as a public and common good. Critique is therefore more than just free speech. It is a process wherein we share notions of the good, to come to a conclusion about how we together should live. This is why critique matters.

Luce: Sensus communis… I would like you to be right, but I don’t think you are. I think that the logic of property that takes hold of the way that people think blocks sensus communis, blocks the possibility of taking another position. There is a toxic appropriation of identity politics: “I as a white heterosexual cis-gendered man am totally oppressed by your discourse of identity politics.” This kind of discourse is based on a confusion of allegedly defending some already granted ‘freedom of speech’ with the act of providing the conditions for ‘freedom of speech’ in the first place. This toxic version of identity politics prevents a real conversation. It merely repeats given patterns of injustice, disguised as the emancipation of the already emancipated. This is a symptom of the blocking of sensus communis – ‘me first’ supplants the productive universalization of one’s own thinking. JPK, you proposed education as a means of resolving this, and I wonder why you went for education rather than friendship and love, as tedious and pathetic as this may sound.
I think education is not the way, because it inscribes a hierarchy. If we go for the education of the masses, we are shooting ourselves in the knee, because the mostly class based authority reclaimed by education is precisely what people react against. But if the commodification of thought is the realization of negative freedom in thinking and the exclusion of any discourse of the other, the institutions of friendship and love – which will not so easily be eroded – may serve as a natural antidote. It’s tedious and pathetic and I don’t think it’s gonna work, but I think it’s a starting point when it comes to counteracting the commodification of thinking and providing a foothold for critique.

Audience: What role does feminism play in the future of anti-capitalist or anti-fascist fights? And do we need men to join these intersectional fights? I agree with the need for a male feminist movement, but perhaps the development of queer studies and intersectional feminism made these movements more difficult?

Jule: Feminism concerns everybody. It’s as simple as that. It addresses a gender system we are all part of, whether we are straight, gay, cis-male… It concerns everybody, and the feminist struggle was always open to everybody. There is nothing contradictory about a male feminist movement, which already exists. Go for it. This problem is solv–

Audience: That’s easy for a woman to say… It’s very difficult for a heterosexual man [inaudible].

Jule: Talk to your friends about it; I would like to deal with other issues at the moment. I would like to defend the idea of an intersectional anticapitalist critique, but I think crisis is inherent in critique from the moment a self-reflection of critique begins by taking one’s own complicity with power into account. We are all complicit in different power structures. I am privileged by other power dynamics than you might be. This plunges critique inherently and immediately into crisis, and complicates collective modes of critiques. We are all complicit in power structures in different ways, and this plays in the hands of capital and its logic of ‘divide and conquer.’ It’s important to be aware of the different complicities that we have and that divide us, but we also have to hold on to a notion of collectivity, even if it’s a fictional one.

Audience: Should we not join a political party? Would you consider joining a party?

Dennis: I think this is an interesting question, and I want to relate it to the earlier question about the vanity of a critique that doesn’t lead to change. Up until the late ‘60s or ‘70s critique was to a large extent channeled by the unions and their alliance with social democratic parties. That system fell apart, largely because we don’t work in industry anymore and neoliberalism made us all into competitors. The welfare state was criticized for being paternalizing; but then it was disassembled and nothing came in its place. The disappearance of these institutions went hand in hand with the substitution of an analysis of exclusion for an analysis of exploitation, still very current fifty years ago. Exclusion is not about who profits and who is exploited in a given system; it focuses on the people who fall outside of that system altogether, as if wage laborers should consider themselves lucky to even be exploited. It’s easy to criticize institutions, but without institutions that articulate and channel social discontent, how do we prevent it from turning into resentment and racism, which is precisely the other side of the identity politics that displaced class-based analysis?

Audience: It seems that the term critique is used to describe two separate operations: one is the use of analytical, systemic thinking to take apart something to see what hidden assumptions are part of it and what agendas are behind it; to dissect and criticize the thing. Implicit in that, and in the notion of crisis, is that that dissection will then reveal what you should do instead. One of the problems is that often you can dissect something and see the problem, but that doesn’t clarify what the response should be. I don’t know if one can ascribe to a technique like critique the ability to generate positive beliefs. As Hansun said, historically, when critique comes about, the affirmative beliefs are actually coming from elsewhere, even if they are often put in a language of critique.

Luce: As a dedicated philosophical cynic, instead of giving advice, I can only trash what goes without saying and leave you with the remnants…

JPK: Thank you very much.

Jule: But critique does have effects, because it intervenes in what is sayable and what is visible. At the moment, we see how the right wing is redefining what it is possible to say and to perceive; they are shifting the field of what can be perceived and said to a very racist, anti-feminist version of society using the vocabulary of ‘cultural war.’ Critical analyses can shift that. Critique can shift that. Regarding utopian images: this is not something we can build by means of reflecting critically at our desk. They have to be created or create themselves in collective practices of solidarity.

JPK: Hansun remarked on my being a modernist; that’s ok, you can call me that. But I want to close by saying there is a time for everything, and now may be a time to revive these old thoughts by Kant and Habermas, because with post-truth, they have a new opponent.

Audience: Perhaps they return in zombie form.

JPK: Perfect – I will steal that from you.