The death of criticism

Jameson had feared that, under the conditions of global capitalism, the possibility of “critical distance” from the zoological monstrosity (Nietzsche’s term) of capital has been abolished: “the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity”. Like Lyotard and Deleuze, Jameson had offered criticism the gift of a single possibility: that thought should be possible in the space of a local representation within the unrepresentable totality of capital of the unrepresentability of that totality (there is no paradox here but, rather, a strict typology). For Lyotard, for example, this possibility arises in the form of a single question: Is it happening.

There is evidence, however, that criticism can no longer, in good faith, accept the hope that Jameson offered and perhaps it is here that Jameson’s utopianism parts ways with Deleuze: there is no exterior to capital (Deleuze’s acceptance and even affirmation of this proposition constitutes his essential Nietzscheanism). But rather than saying that capital creates its own exterior, it is more interesting—and horrifying—to see that its most important function is to create its own interior.

But what has escaped sufficient attention is that essence of capital consists not only in desiring-production but in its mute consumption of criticism (that results in something much like the cytopathic effects of viruses on healthy cells): even the unjust, the ugly, or the banal can become objects of consumption with the proper “will to enjoyment”.

Although not really in a position to speak on the matter (though interesting precisely for that fact), Miley Cyrus recently said, commenting on a recent infamous cultural episode, that “it should be harder to be an artist”. Whereas the previous generation of critical theory had feared the commodification of art—and the attendant reactionary tendencies of bourgeois art that provided critical art with its image in a counterfeit double—we now see the ontological collapse of art into capital. In these studios that provide, for a modest fee, petite-bourgeois philistines with the opportunity to display their cultural vulgarity under the guise of liberal-democratic aspiration,* we might think that capital has finally delivered a less-than-merciful coup de grace.

*Although, as a final insult, these studios declare their commitment to “music, not the pursuit of fame”.

But the real danger is not the death of art but the impossibility of criticism. We have known for a long time that capital is oblivious to intentions, yet the ironists persist in their failure to recognize their own self-contradictions. The latest product of these music factories has apparently earned its customer at least $20K not despite but precisely because of its ineptitude—and this is the ironists’ final victory. What we should mourn is not the death of art—which is now simply the outsourced product of mechanized labor just as the shoes we wear—but the helplessness of criticism in the face of it. And the proper vocabulary of such mourning is silence, to which criticism now seems to be reduced.


1. Courage must always manifest in the face of violence. In particular, courage is predicated on self-violence, in death (the extreme possibility), in the willing of death. (This is, however, different from suicide, for suicide cannot be a willing.) Courage, real courage, is more common and, thus, more demanding than perhaps we always want to acknowledge. At the risk of falling into the jargon of authenticity, there is courage in every faithful act—in the greeting, in the glance, in the smile, in the departure.

2. In courage the distinction between morality and ethics is blurred: there cannot be a distinction between the care of the self and the recognition of the other, for example (not because these two things are conflated, but because they are presented under two aspects of this phenomenon).

3. Courage is also an artistic virtue (which in some sense is also an intellectual virtue, I suppose). Artistic courage opposes every utterance like “I want to be famous” (which in academia manifests in wanting an “–ian” attached to one’s name), for nothing could be more disastrous for an artist.

At first, this seems like a strange thing to say. What, for example, is more lamentable than the fate of “forgotten” artists (like Thalberg or Méhul) who are being valiantly “recovered”, now that we are getting bored with Liszt and Beethoven? Would not their art have been better served with fame?

Fame, of course, is recognition, and nothing is more ruinous for art than recognition (the shortest path to ideology). What art requires, instead, is repetition. Hence the term “recovery” is not quite right, for there is nothing more asinine than the “rediscovery” of third-rate art simply because it is an alternative to the exhaustion of the classics. (But, of course, a classic that is exhausted is not a classic.)

The real tragedy is for an artist to disappear. But in this case there is a special problem and forms the very limit of art: if an artist disappears, then we (here, now) can never know that he has. (Hence, to eulogize or elegize this artist would require the construction of a fiction.) This possibility of disappearing is, in short, the very definition of artistic courage.

3a. This explains why the artist cannot care for fame. Along the same examples I’ve been using, this is why Alkan more than Liszt is the artist par excellence (and why, among his more limited output, there is more uniform quality in Alkan’s work than in Liszt’s). And yet, what was Alkan’s fate?


1. Deleuze wants the creation of concepts, like the ritornello. Perhaps (also/instead) what we need is the creation of images, like the prélude. Why the prelude? Like the rhapsody, the prelude was once a miscellaneous archetype that freed the composer from the autocratic laws of structure and architecture (the only difference between the prelude and the rhapsody is contextual). These laws determined, a priori, two sets of relations: the internal relations of sound within the piece and the experience of the listener. It is true that, as Boulez points out, the former relation is left intact in the prelude; reconfiguring this relation would require someone like a Cixous. But, consider: some of Chopin’s most evocative moments occur in his preludes when he either releases the linearity characteristic of most of his music or his lines converge into something more like a Rachmaninovian tableau. Unlike, say, a sonata, a prelude is not a narrative; the listener is thus always led to go on—the prelude always signifies beyond itself (pre-lude). Often a prelude leaves us asking “what next?” or “is that it?” (perhaps Bach presents a special problem here). Sometimes one gets a prelude to a larger narrative (say in Gershwin); other times the prelude is simply a prelude. But the question “to what?” must never be lost. The closest equivalent to a prelude is an aphorism that, as Dienstag has recently reminded us, is the form par excellence to communicate the discontinuity that is thought itself (Adorno, Derrida, Bergson). If there is a difference between an aphorism and a prelude, I would say it is this: the aphorism is a statement; the prelude is a question (another image!).

2. Adler in the 80s wrote a series of books such as “How to Speak/How to Listen” and “How to Read a Book”. These are, unfortunately, outdated and, paradoxically equally unfortunately, little read today. What perhaps is needed desperately today, in a climate of total technologism (particularly in education), in both philosophy and art, is the book “How to Listen/How to Read” (admittedly, I have yet to read Nancy’s book on listening). By “listen”, in addition to music, I intend things like “seeing” a painting or “experiencing” a space: if philosophy has been dominated by the “hegemony of vision”, perhaps it is time to assert the rights of hearing; in other words, if vision and touch are indicators of space, equally so hearing.

It is precisely the inability to read that frustrates both the teacher of philosophy and the Continental insofar as s/he fights the ideologies of discourse, persuasion, and philosophy itself (i.e., reading Quine, held as an exemplar of clear academic writing by the MLA, is but one technique of reading; reading Bataille is another). Analogously, aside from Barenboim’s recent precipitous remarks about the experience of sound, noise, and music in contemporary culture, it is the inability to listen that threatens not only the quality but the very existence of art. To take one example, Listisa and Kocsis (in their Rachmaninoff), and Hamelin (in Alkan) are often criticized for losing melodies for the sake of speed. And yet—all three have revealed sonorous aspects of various pieces hitherto unknown precisely because of the reconfiguration they effected by changing that one modality of sound. The error, in short, is an analytic conception of sound: that sound can be analyzed into its components of pitch, rhythm, volume, timbre, tempo, and so on; this is also the error that thinks music can be analyzed into melody and harmony (or, better, that thinks “melody” has any significant meaning at all; “melody” needs to be replaced by the “line”, one species of which is Schönberg’s “row”).

Fragments IIa (2 JUL 2007)

1. Can philosophy “communicate” with others? The question is badly put. The point is not for philosophy to “teach” or “communicate” anything to, e.g., science. Philosophy does not “inform” or even “critique” science. Philosophy opens science. Yet is not philosophy also a deductive, axiomatic structure (i.e., a totality)? Can philosophy thus open itself? Is this not the ethical imperative of reflection (as a colleague of mine says)? Has not this reflection and this opening onto thinking (the thinking of the infinite) been at the heart of philosophy since Socrates? Socratic philosophy has never been, primarily, about “critiquing” or “negating” or even “changing” the world. Philosophy has always been positive, creative of new worlds, other worlds (“otherworldly resonances”).

2. If philosophy is the presentation of what happens or what does not happen, the relevant difference between philosophy and art is that art is precisely irrelevant to what does or does not happen.

3. If I say “Plato” should be treated as a big text composed of his (individual) texts, and thus that Platonic philosophy is fidelity to his concepts—this is a descriptive-normative conception of philosophy. A philosophy that treats the text otherwise can certainly do so, but is this not a naïve philosophy, since the former is the condition of possibility for the latter (naïve) philosophy?

And yet, we face again the problem of the limit: naïveté can never be revealed to itself.

Fragments I (24 NOV 2005; edited 6 JUL 2007)

1. These new “unbelievable” graphics are certainly not mimetic in the sense that the goal is no longer to emulate an indistinguishable reality but, rather, to create a hyper-reality that is more real than the world through which our feet must tread. What does this mean for perception? for experience?

2. What offends most about so-called “displays of manhood” is not their vulgarity but the intolerable amateurism. Similarly, people often think they’re being rebellious without knowing they are contributing to the very system they think they reject. In this the Frankfurt School was absolutely right—false consciousness.

3. Is it possible that the moral duty of the artist requires a withdrawal? If the masses can only be parasitic on art—if the system that makes the dissemination of art possible is precisely what is enslaving art (i.e., the networks of capital, industry management, etc)—then the artist is required to withdraw into silence and sacrifice the existence of art—let it be destroyed by the amateurs and opium peddlers—so that it must be created again. (The Chinese masters, under the threat of Communism, let their art die, for example.)