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June 18, 2012


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I totally agree with you Jodi.
Wrote about this last year in Overland: http://overland.org.au/blogs/not-assigned/2011/01/return-of-the-real-part-one-%E2%80%98enlightened-false-consciousness%E2%80%99/


So true. So well said.

Jodi Dean

Joshua--your piece on enlightened false consciousness is great. Thanks so much for the link!


This is a good piece. I for one will always commend the privileging of the will to act. I will, however, call one item into question, and that is over the issue of displacement of activity. This is not a necessary condition of critique. Critique does not preclude other simultaneous behavior; one could engage in critical activity, or active critique. Overly reflexive, self-conscious, self-doubting activity reveals "man suffering of man, of himself." There certainly comes time for conviction. And, while I also like Joshua's piece, we need not fear the erosion of the ground we stand upon. It is rotten anyway.


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.



Are you sure you've thought this through all the way?


Since I have been reading him lately, Kenneth Burke's notion of "frames of acceptance,"fleshed out in his 1937 book Attitudes Toward History, seems relevant to this discussion. Burke makes the politics of perception of historical change the center of his discussion. He reserves particularly scorn for the "debunking frame," which I think resonates with this piece.

The real problem of critique-for-critique's sake, or of critique as be-all-end-all is that it leads, inexorably, to misreadings of processes in motion. Reminds me of some of the themes that have emerged around theorizations of OWS, wherein "critique" often means: we're back to '68, we're back to '34...

Matthew Crow

To speak in humble defense of reflection, this post smells to me of decisionism and political theology. I'll take critique for critque's sake over decision for decision's sake any day of the week and twice on sundays. The lust for action just because it will relieve us of the responsibility for seeing and understanding the conditions of our thoughts and actions, and from confronting them, is one of the truly regrettable, although quite popular and widespread, tendencies in American political language today, both in and outside of academe.

We don't need cynicism, but we do need a dose of skepticism. Call me a weakling, but I can't get in a place where I would look at American politics today and say to myself, "there's just too much thinking going on here!" To be completely and respectfully contrarian, one of the most important tasks we have is to institute and care for spaces where the responsibility for "critical thought" is spread and shared. The university is one but cannot be the only such space. We need to rethink critical reflection as a civic rather than an academic practice. In the virtual world you've documented and, dare I say, critiqued better than anyone, it seems to me that saving and creating space and time for thinking is of the upmost importance.

- matt

The Mathmos

Great post Jodi.

One easy and idiotic comeback to any item of left-wing criticism anyday is "and what's your solution" or "yeah but Russia tried your way hasn't it". Even Democrats counter every criticism of Obama with the reality principle of "what alternatives?".

There's a lot to unpack (or not) in those replies, but their basic thrust remains that the Left is vulnerable on the ground of expectations not being matched by actions (past present or future).

The critical stuff no one worries about.

Account Deleted

Awesome post! I think even part of the way we look at this question is conditioned by class too, e.g. talk of the "lust" for action, as if it were merely a casual choice made in a void, so to say. Sorry to be 'vulgar', but the necessity for concrete action may not be a reality for many in the academy, but it is for most people losing their homes and being harassed by the police every day. This is also relevant to that last comment by The Mathmos on "what alternative?". I think the first thing that is in need of recognition is that the current state of affairs is not a solid premise, to be compared with something else that may or may not work better. The current state of affairs, capitalism, is not an alternative, it is not tentatively ok until we find something better, it is already killing billions unnecessarily, right now. This, reality, should be our starting point.

Matthew Crow

The point is precisely that choices are not made in a void but that they are still choices. And the choices we make have consequences, and I'm for the kind of politics that would be aware of that. I don't "trust" people who think that critical reflection is a conspiracy. This is the case for several reasons, not the least of which is they don't care for people in communities and in history outside of the willingness of those people to play a part in our illusions of cosmic drama. How many members of the people would you be willing to sacrifice to your Idea of them? Lots of things can follow from your thinking here, but justice and meaningful action will not be among them. You are giving yourself way too much credit in declaring your vulgarity.

In short, you sound like a leader of the People's Front of Judea. I guess if you don't like the activity of reflecting, you will really hate comedy.

Account Deleted

There is a tendency in the obsessive need to focus on critique and reflection toward the exclusion of everything else. Reality changes all the time, it is reasoned, so the need for critique arises ever anew. This is true. Reflection is not a conspiracy, but it is unproductive when there is no room given to acting upon that reflection. It becomes narcissistic cowardice. I am not looking for things to follow from my thinking here. My thinking follows from what I consider "meaningful action", i.e. speaking with real "people in communities" and working from there (how's that for some stereotypical self-righteous troll-fodder?). Of course, this will quickly be made into "illusions of cosmic drama" &c. &c., as if what it takes to ignore the massive elephant in the room - really existing capitalism - to insist on the Absolute Critique didn't harbor anything like "illusions of cosmic drama". I am for the kind of politics that allows for critique on a widespread scale, and against the kind of politics that excludes this possibility through a narrow focus on reflection for its own sake. Yes, critical reflection is necessary and it mustn't ever be abandoned, but it should be instrumentalized.

I love comedy. One of my favorites is Brecht. His speech at the 1935 Paris Writers' Congress is relevant here. I would also recommend "Die Maßnahme" any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Matthew Crow

Gosh, you are vulgar.

Basically, no, it should not be instrumentalized, at least not always and everywhere, and especially not along the lines you have discussed. Google beat you to the punch by a long shot.

In fact, exploring forms of collective life that resist the command to instrumentalize might be a very good place to start. Thoreau did more to end slavery by measuring a pond in someone else's backyard for a while than anything you're talking about will ever do about capitalism. I just don't believe you are very interested at all in "critique on a widespread scale." Democracy worthy of the name will have to include the ability of the public to resist being caught up in the desire of others to see the Absolute in politics. Turning to Schmittian language about decision and action isn't taking capitalism head on or looking at the matter squarely and honestly, and it certainly isn't courageous- its just disaster plain and simple.

Reflective and collaborative work on the concepts we're throwing around in life is important, and just as it doesn't need to be turned directly into legislating, it is work that if done well won't be conducting itself according to a strict legislative program.


But what IS critique? Naysaying capitalism? This is what I mean about people being uncritical about critique. It's treated like it's sacrosanct but it's not particularly clear what people even think that it is.

Matthew Crow

I suppose it could be- that is certainly what's happening here (of course, its terribly funny to see people bang on about critique in the name of an ever truer Critique just over the horizon, or who in the name of radical politics and "action" will stand by waiting for a politics that will never be what they need it to be).

Myself, I'm less interested in Critique, which in this little community, ironically, is caught up in anxiety about how to inherit Kant and Adorno, than I am in what some others have called practices of critical reflection. Teaching, learning, assembling, taking apart, and sharing material for getting a hold on what we have, finding ourselves so we can know who we are and what we can do. Given what is actually happening in politics today, pedagogy for addressing issues of access, capacity, and security is what I'm thinking about now.

This won't impress anyone. But, and I'm afraid I'm alone in this here- I'm not interested in taking command or in writing with enthusiasm for divine violence. People who want thought, expression, politics, and life to be only instruments of a Vision are not my companions.


I don't find myself fundamentally wedded to the concept of critique either. However, as I do find the concept to be of some importance I think it's worth trying to figure out what it is and what it could be.

That is most definitely not because I believe that there is some "ever truer Critique just over the horizon" but just because we should try to generate a concept of critique that is worthy of all the time, attention and energy that it receives.

I'm just not sure that 'critique,' at present, deserves its status as master signifier.

Riot Hero

Sean Larson, you mentioned Brecht's speech at the 1935 Paris Writers' Congress. Do you happen to know where one could find the text of that speech? I can't find it anywhere. Could you have meant to reference his "Five Difficulties in Writing the Truth" (also from 1935) instead? I hate to feed the troll, but since you mentioned Brecht, I'll just say his endorsement of "crude thinking" (plumpes Denken) might be worth considering today. This question actually came up in this January interview with Susan Buck-Morss on OWS: http://bit.ly/KsiaAj

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