5 June 2012
Giovanni Tiso’s piece, ‘An Essay on Criticism‘, surrounds a particular question. We are evidently enraged by the power of criticism to conquer and dispel what we find valuable, but who is this rage addressing? And what is it in answer to? Tiso gives us a delightful response: that the explosion of modes for sharing cultural products is marked by a terrifying positivity, as he puts it, the “chorus of Yes! and THIS! and Like and +11 and subscribe”, but further, that this positivity binds us to a frail consumption, where we are “left alone with our likes, and not unduly exposed to our dislikes”.
For this critical point, there is nothing to add to the premise or the conclusion, but Tiso has opened up a range of other questions that are here unresolved. First, we should ask, what is the importance of the second half of that notion, to be “not unduly exposed to our dislikes”? It is important to add to Tiso’s description that the compulsion to sub-tweeted, undirected critique isn’t just to target those who tenuous friendships might not stand up to forceful criticism, but is perhaps more commonly a flagellation, seeing the marks of our own mistakes in others and getting our disciplinary work done on the cheap. We can stand stronger, so we suppose, against our shitty impulses to gauge whole human beings on their differing taste, that is, against our habit of being unduly exposed to our dislikes, by condensing our selves through speaking against it in others.2
The other side of this positivity is the purpose of this compulsive sharing. A difference of intensity perhaps, but Is it different in form than forcing a friend to listen to the album or song that has you riled up? Instead of the blank face watched expectantly, don’t we have the sad blue globe, uncommented, unliked and unshared? Yes, of course, but different in a particular way, the difference of sharing to those who potentially already know, an aristocratic flush, between those in a shared cult of recognition? Linguistic reduction has no greater disproof than the variety of likes and favorites expressed over a single posted youtube.
This positivity is turned on mode of acculturation (and acculturating) that is more Christian than before, even as it is catastrophically more protestant. A sparkling city of stronghold apartments, each dedicated in two and threes to its content, which is assumed to be True in a deep sense and so wary of any others who would deny it, and at the same time, this is the point that I think Tiso is making so eloquently, aware that they are all engaged on the side of “culture” against… Against what? Against. That’s probably enough. A false skirmish on allies in the fake war against no-one makes everyone more robust. As long, of course, as we have a sense of shame about it. A mechanism to turn away from actual internal strife, and turn back toward the absent enemy. “Don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.”
The curious thing about absent enemies is how prophetic they turn out to be. The old Christians used to scream about atheists who weren’t to be found, even among the most fearlessly honest of their critics. They could always see that a gap moves in two directions, toward a fulfillment and completion of the unresolved whole in armageddon, or toward the shattering into particulate,3 Thus any challenge that doesn’t come from the purity of the Whole is an agent of the gap’s chasmatic growth and the source of a frenetic cover-up and delegitimization.
The most formally interesting philosophical innovation of Pascal wasn’t in probability, the nightmare that haunts utility and therefore capitalism, but his insistence that Atheism was produced by its aggressors, the Jesuits. Nietzsche completed the turn with his analysis of Christian nihilism, how the insistence that a god of transcendence be measured by fact, logic and truth. We should recognize the further turn is even more dangerous; the opposition to merely formal possibles, like atheism or non-culture, require the transcendence of god to rouse to the heights of the universal, that is, the depths of the “servant, mailman, calendar man—at bottom, a word for the most stupid of all accidents”4. Similarly, the Art, the Culture that is being ground into being is not what we expected from a particular, fractured and bottomless culture, but that old freneticism returned as the Final work, the Gesamtkunstwerk that can heal us, resolve us back to the One whose rejection was so costly and hard-fought.
The question of what this kind of work could look like takes, necessarily, in a different direction. Instead of asking why we respond to criticism in the ways that we do, this question is, needs to be, toward what are we asking in such responses? Why do we respond at all? Isn’t there a powerful fantasy remaining, in which we casually ignore the unpleasant and ugly and stupid? What is the nature of the wall that stands between us and our freedom to not give a shit?
Here we are up against this nihilistically undermined Gesamtkunstwerk. In our particulate and contestatory world, we are left only, sadly, with politics. And not just politics, but, perilously for all involved, radical politics. That is, a politics beyond utility and material, useless when their truth is marked by struggle, but a politics whose truth-function is only fidelity to the limit or the ideal. What was dismissed as a subset of identity politics seems crucial now, the nearly exclusive growth of schools of criticism based in race, class, gender, sexuality and revolutionary potential. These are each aspects of a larger domain, the supposedly binary search for a work of art formed within systems of domination that eludes them and attacks on those works that are reactionary. Because the former is contaminated by incoherent dreams of romantic human creativity, the binary returns to its pessimistic source; exclusive criticism, not critique, criticism of the fallen world.
Though the critical binary has fallen, the pleasure of inversion still stalks criticism of this kind; while liberalism is a dirty word for a number of reasons, in criticism it is the affront, the dare to proclaim a revolutionary capacity in a reactionary mode. The more the work claims to speak on revolution and uprising, and the more visible it is, the more forceful and widespread the criticism What else explains the terror of Avatar, which bloomed a thousand blog posts, all screaming “NOBLE SAVAGE” at the top of their incensed, predictable lungs.
Another, related, side of this projective Gesamtkunstwerk is the shift in the term “problematic”. What once indicated that a work or concept needed to be carefully deployed because it had more or less dangerous aspects has become an indictment of concepts, and works, as a whole. And not only must a work turn toward feminism, queerness, anti-racism, communism, etc, but it must do all of these at once, binding the doubled-back prophesy of a Whole left back to itself, against the uniformity it [pr]op(p)oses. The existence of a strain of racism, misogyny, homophobic or the various strains of privilege is enough to disqualify a work from consideration.
I abandoned this train of thought a few years ago for seeming too dead-ended and ethereal, too easily deployed with too little to say, but maybe it’s time to revive it. Criticism’s proper role is to identify the new possibilities, new modes, new styles available within a piece, and to overthrow, not identify, the reactionary elements within it. The notion of positive critique is well-known, if too rarely understood but it seems time for a forceful strain of argument in its favor, if only to avoid another article about how ‘Girls’ is insufficiently conscious of its race and class privilege.
The strain I propose is Anarchism. Instead of the various non-hierarchical organizations this upsprings, I’d like to emphasize the discontinuous immediacy that lies at the heart of any anarchism, the power and reality of the particular against the laws, rules, orders and structures which are merely formally persistent.5 The turn toward immediacy suggests that history breaks on those moments when the conception of powers and their organization are parallel. Whether these are Events in the grand sense or not doesn’t really matter, instead, they overload a moment adequate to itself. The moment becomes too much itself, too powerfully identical, and has to overflow. The universals of the past may be empty, but they lurk like cisterns, the most easily occupied, and safest, destination for the dangerous power exploding out from the accident of adequacy. Their awesome force institutes a persistence that conditions the conception of selves and structures under its aspect, even as its particulars, those of the empirical world, deviate immediately. A new sign might mark on the world, but so often it is too weak to overcome what exists. And when it is finally strong enough to overtake the domain, it is more often a sign that the founding moment has decayed under its inability to reconcile difference, or as my earlier example of nihilism suggests, the turning-in of strains of power bundled together, rather than a new power urgently pressing in upon the world. Anarchism, if I can still call it that, is then the powerful adequacy that that exists, before it collapses under its own rushing into the persistent universal, the point where every being in the moment has the voice of it, and the dead and sclerotic past is properly ignored. Whether this moment takes the form of political anarchism is irrelevant; political anarchism is only the attempt to coerce this moment into being, not its definition or telos.
What does this mean for the projective Gesamtkunstwerk, or rather our resistance to it? Here, I want to go back to Tiso’s piece:
“Are there even any genuine snobs left? Are there cultural critics willing to argue that, say, reality television is bad for its public and for society, and that if you watch Police Ten 7 you might be an arsehole? Or is it true on the contrary that even the most derivative or exploitative manifestations of mass culture have been almost universally subsumed under the rubric of taste, concerning which, as we have known for some time, there can be no dispute? As for the artistic and cultural legitimacy of what is popular, that is another battle that was won decisively some decades ago. Nobody but nobody is relitigating that.”
This is true, in such a brutally hopeful way, but the reasons why it is true are left fallow by their obviousness. I would suggest it has become too obvious, or at least too obvious to remember the real lesson of paracinemas and shit culture apologetics and polemics against the Art Nerd; Art is not a limited range of possible actions, to be judged on the fidelity to those limits. Art is not, then, any variety of radical politics. It is a collection of strains from which we can choose and emphasize to distortion. These strains that occur within and among it, insofar as critical capacity and artistic production are both only aspects of the Aesthetic. In order to both renounce the stupid binary of the Proper work in abstraction and the fallen, problematic works of the existing world, we need to steal from this binary its beating heart; the celebration of those strains in each piece which can conquer or escape the bleak-eyed and broken whole. The presence of sexism or racism or homophobia or privilege is absolutely a legitimate discussion, if it is that aspect we are considering as a tool for radical practice. But works aren’t wholes, nobody but nobody is relitigating that, not contaminated environments and not incomplete for still appear in the real world, they’re collections of aspects. Aggregations to be torn through and harvested for their potential to overcome, to overwhelm, to usurp.
1. ha! +1. ha!
2. Whether this girding is necessary, or this violent judgement is bad, is a different, and more important, question than the one I’m trying ask here, a question I hope to return to in another piece.
3. The one so familiar to us that even philosophers are free to be bored with it again, in their laughably faddish and careerist style.
4. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, §52