I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Alexander Reid, Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo. In a post he published on his blog digital digs about the challenge one faces while trying to learn new ideas, Alex wrote:
In graduate school, I learned (every humanities grad student learns) to “problematize” (not a word) or critique. (I’m not sure if there’s a difference between those.) There are many brands, but the operation is ultimately the same. It’s a search for limits, contradictions, weaknesses, blind spots, etc. in a given idea, but the bottom line is to argue that “this new idea isn’t good because it’s not the same as the idea I already hold.” […]
I don’t want to suggest that the critical mode has no place. Of course it does. It’s just very difficult to learning something new while in the critical mode. The critical mode, alone, is not sufficient. One also requires a generative, playful, mode. (“How To Learn New Idea” by Alexander Reid, February 26, 2011)
Since Alex Reid’s piece is about learning new ideas, I was wondering what it could mean to try to think differently about “critical mode” and “critique” in general. Alex was kind enough to share his thoughts about this particular topic (even though it was not the main concern of the piece he had just written). He clarified his views about critique in a comment:
Critique, as it emerges in the context of humanities scholarly discourses from graduate courses to scholarly monographs, can perform a number of operations. It produces seminar papers, conference presentations, and eventually journal articles and books that get us tenure.
What critique does not do, however, is create a context in which one is amenable to new ideas
Although I acknowledge that this is one of the popular way one can think about critique nowadays, I was not convinced that it was the only one. We went on exchanging about semantic problems and alternative ways to practice and to think about critique. The main point of discussion was about the possibilities for “critical thought” to be inventive and creative and the challenges one would face while trying to think about such a “critique”. Below is an excerpt of my comment (I added URL links and references whenever I could for the books and articles I’m quoting). I encourage you to follow the above link to read this courteous and enlightening conversation in its entirety.
Besides being an Associate Professor at the Buffalo University, Alexander Reid is the author of two books: The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition (Parlor Press, 2007) and Design Discourse: Composing and Revising Programs in Professional and Technical Writing (editor; The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2010). One can consult his C.V. online and take a look at his profile over at Academia.edu. The “OOO” acronym Alex is using in his post and subsequent comments stands for “objet-oriented ontology”. To learn more about that one can read Levi R. Bryant‘s series “Onticology – A Manifesto for Object-Oriented Ontology” as well as the essay he published in the collective book he co-edited with Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (the entire book is available for free online as a PDF file). For a shorter and maybe more accessible introduction, see Ian Bogost‘s post: “What Is Object Oriented Ontology? A Definition For Ordinary Folk”.
It is indeed –among other things– a semantic argument: after all, we’re also discussing a word, right? A word used as a label to identify a concept or an ensemble of practices historically defined. What I am saying is exactly what you are saying: “if one were to think more broadly about critique then one might encounter critical methods that foster invention”. Although I’m not just saying it: it has been done before. Interestingly enough, Deleuze is precisely one of those who tried to think about the critical process in a creative way (see for example Nietzsche and Philosophy as well as Essays Critical and Clinical). One could also point to Walter Benjamin’s essay on The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism, to Michel Foucault’s essay “What Is Critique?” and, for a more recent take on the problem, to Brian Massumi’s short essay “On Critique”.
You go on observing that: “In a way though, this is partly like saying if critique were something other than what it is then it would be different”. I understand what you mean. But what is critique? Are all the definitions already existing reducible to a single unity? Cynical critique from ancient Greece, cartesian critique, kantian critique, nietzschean critique, Deleuze’s interpretation of critique, etc. all mashed up in one big “That is what it is”? When Benjamin offers his famous “Critique of violence” (PDF) is it simply another marxist critique? And if not, how is it different? Could it leads us to think about the critical process in a new way and thus to generate new ideas?
You wrote “In the end, these different modes of critique are hermeneutic, in search of a truth that they have already claimed to know.” I absolutely agree with you (Deleuze wrote about that as well, in his book on Foucault). It certainly is one of the main problem with “traditional critique” (what I’ve called earlier “prescriptive critique” but I still feel the need to insist that an effort should be made in order to define this traditional-academic-prescriptive critique). And I also think Latour was thinking about this specific kind of critique when he wrote his article [“Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, no. 2]. Having said that, I myself wouldn’t be able to identify all the instance of critical practices (all the modes of critique) that I know of with this single symptom. For one, I really don’t think that’s what Deleuze was thinking about when he wrote about critique in Nietzche and Philosophy (to take this single example).
Finally, you wrote: “But right now I would continue to say that the overwhelming effect of humanistic critique is to dampen invention.” I find this last sentence particularly interesting since you chose this time to qualify the critique you’re talking about: a humanistic critique. I’m glad about this. If there’s a humanistic critique and if it is riddled with problems, then maybe there’s an opportunity for another kind of practice, another kind of critique.
The idea is not to fight for a word. I’m pretty confident that you’re not yourself a fetishist of the acronym “OOO”. Instead, you stand for the (potentially new) ways of thinking labelled under (with) this acronym. I myself am not really interested in holding up to a specific definition of what “critique” is (be it to promote it or to condemn it). What I really care about though is keeping the possibility to think about critique in different ways, in new ways. I’m interested in multiplying the possibilities that allows us to think about the set of practices traditionally (historically) labeled under the word “critique”. In a way, I’m defending the very kind of contingency claimed by speculative realists consisting in opening up realms of new possibilities.