The Cacophony of Critique

First published here:

In the time it takes you to read this, 394,000 critiques of your political beliefs will be written, your favourite ideas will be ‘owned’ 77,000 times on social media and 416 memes will satirise your ideas (approximately)! Regardless of your age, gender, class, sexuality or how ‘critical’ you think you are, someone, somewhere, is ready to unmask you as hoodwinked by your culture, a pawn of political power, an unthinking sheep following herd-like convention. And your critic thinks of themselves as iconoclastic, well-informed and radical, capable of transforming the world through their words, if only people would listen!

Even cherished ideals can have unintended consequences. Liberty, an ideal which was pursued through revolutions and social movements historically, has also been instrumental to neo-liberalism, with its emphasis on individual freedom to choose. Or consider the ideal of freedom of speech which animated political and democratic struggles for centuries. Yet the contemporary by-products of free-speech are a public sphere cluttered by social media, entrenched opponents who relentlessly repeat their ideas without any dialogue, and the ‘post-truth’ world where anyone can say anything they feel might be true.

As utopian hopes for liberty, free-speech and critique fade, it becomes necessary to reconsider them; is it possible that our preferred intellectual tool of critique produces cacophony rather than enlightenment?

Etymologically ‘critique’ comes from the Greek ‘kritik’ meaning a judge, a meaning retained in ‘literary criticism’ and other appraisals of the merits of artistic works. However, critique today also means to unmask, to reveal, to deconstruct. Such criticism is not just about assessing the quality of something, whether it is a political statement, state policy or whole society, instead, this form of critique claims to expose ideology and domination. Critique reveals lies, propaganda and false social beliefs. Critique unmasks the hidden power-relations which dominate people in unjust and even violent ways.

What could be wrong with that? Unfortunately, like most powerful weapons, critique is a two-edged sword. This is not simply to say that critique can be deliberately and disingenuously used for manipulative ends, for instance, where advertisers use the critique of conformism or inauthenticity to sell more products. Similarly, managers deliberately ‘co-opted’ the critique of capitalism as alienating and boring to create more flexible ‘project-oriented’ jobs which subsume worker’s whole identities and legitimate exploitation.

Beyond the commercialisation or instrumentalisation of critique, there are other problems. There are already well established critiques of these ‘perversions’ of critique, but such approaches try to ‘purify’ critique, dividing between good and bad, genuine and fake versions. However, there’s no unassailable Archimedean point from which to make such distinctions – indeed, in the cacophony of critique most everyone is in earnest; your opponent is certain of their critique, casting you as obstinately self-delusional.

Today critique is ‘weaponised’ in politics. The two seismic political events of Brexit and Trump were propelled by many factors, but most notably by the re-deployment of critique. Brexiteers presented themselves as fighting against the hegemony of Europe, Trump opposed the ‘Washington establishment’. Brexiteers didn’t need experts, Trump ‘told it like it is.’ Both used the classical ‘Jeremiad’ form of critique, railing against the corruption of a ‘once great’ society.

More generally, our culture is suffused by critique: Psychological thinking ‘reveals’ that we have unconscious motives for all of our behaviour; Economists ‘expose’ us as constantly pursuing our own interests; Media analysts of all stripes and a horde of bloggers find propaganda and framing in every news report and text, particularly those they dislike.

As critique diffuses from the ivory tower through politics into everyday life it can become an automatic reflex, perhaps exemplified by social media debates. A new vocabulary has emerged, translating everyday life into critical categories: call-out, woke, whataboutery, privilege, micro-aggression, toxic and various –ophobias. Against this broadly socialist and feminist lexicon consider: politically correct, identity politics, snowflakes, tone-policing. Depending on where you stand, one of these lists is ideology and the other the key to recognising it, and the inverse of your position is held quite trenchantly by other people who think that they are the critic and you the ideologue.

My argument here is that critique operates as a kind of translation of language, capable of rendering anybody else’s account in derogatory terms. Meaningful custom becomes conventional routine, moral values become ideology, society becomes power-relations in the most negative and reductive sense. These accusations can be directed against anything; businesses, unions, parties, social movements, communities, families, intimate relationships. Everywhere and anywhere, critique always ‘discovers’ power, domination, delusion, ideology and so forth.

Over time critique proliferates, diversifies and intensifies, so that contemporary life becomes characterised by both strident condemnation and haunting doubts even about our strongest convictions. This combination of scepticism and anxiety provokes us into further critiques, sometimes even a ‘critique of critique’, but almost always a contribution to the cacophony of critique. Yet perhaps the remedy to the crisis of critique is not more or better or purified critique, but other ways of thinking.

A good starting point is to assume that your interlocuter is fully critical. Beyond the assumption that your opponents are arguing in good faith, presume that they can repurpose and return any critical accusation you make. Presume in advance that they have unmasked you as a creature of your own society, formed and constituted by a certain cultural position – inevitably true, but so what? All political positions and ethical values derive from society – even critique itself has its own history.

The spectacular ‘revelation’ of the other as being an ideologue is an empty, hollow gesture, which serves little but to entrench opponents in their contempt for each other and spread doubt about the meaning and value of social life. Indeed, if we could dispense with the theatrics of ‘unmasking’ the other, it becomes more possible to concentrate on the material political stakes and the moral values at issue in contemporary debates.

– Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology. His core interests are in social theory, historical sociology and the sociology of critique. Recent articles have appeared in journals of sociology, history, anthropology and philosophy. With Ray Griffin he is author of The Sociology of Unemployment (Manchester University Press, 2015), and his monograph The Spectacle of Critique: From Philosophy to Cacophony is forthcoming with Routledge.  

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