The ghost of liberal criticism

[This post is embarrassingly sketchy and so I reserve the right to retract anything I’ve said stupidly or otherwise in haste later.]

The essence of criticism—and, consequently, the site of its most common abuse—is the refusal of the given. Previously I have accused the right of succumbing to two simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies: either the attempt to deny the future by returning to the past (generally in the form of a nostalgia for a past that has never really existed—e.g., to the intentions and designs of the Founders—or for motives about which we should be extremely suspicious) or simply the indeterminate negation or destruction of the present (and since nature abhors a vacuum, this position often reduces to the first). These fail the task of criticism since, in both case, the given is never genuinely refused but simply reaffirmed (this is simply the definition of conservatism).

In this respect, the left—and here I always mean the North American left—has never understood how difficult its task is (and why there is no genuine oppositional politics in the US). Since the New Left,* liberals have foundered in their attempt to articulate a viable critical vocabulary in mainstream political discourse (if we are to believe the caricatures from the right, the only serious candidate here is academic postmodernism).

*This is, incidentally, one of only two points about Rand was correct: in her attacks on the New Left she accused the left of intellectual bankruptcy. One finds it hard to protest.

What should be even more astonishing given the present and unmistakable failures of the right’s ideology is the left’s inability to mobilize effective modes of critique against those failures such that they appear to all not as failures of principle but merely of practice. In this regard, I have previously argued that the left’s insistence on ironic criticism is worse than ineffective but actively detrimental to the capacity for critical resistance to real injustice. The other popular mode of leftist criticism for which we must find a better alternative—which we see exemplified, for example, in the left’s current analysis of libertarianism under Paul—is brute consequentialism that, at best, runs dangerously close to reducing to the problem of indeterminate negation adduced earlier or, at worst, indicates a lack of courage either to articulate or simply to have political principles.**

**I leave aside naïve relativism in all its forms from vulgar postmodernism to a debased form of “liberal toleration” as beneath the dignity of criticism.

In this sense, the left’s fear of fascism—i.e., the suspicion that the implementation of a political program must be inherently utopian—has deprived it of the resources to combat the actual fascism of its opponents. An actual democratic politics is not a competition between rival political programs or interests: it is the construction of the idea of the state itself (as I have argued elsewhere, the state is less an institution or a structure than the continuous process of structuration). In a way, such a notion of democracy deconstructs the lexicon of politics (left/right, etc) available to us. To use these familiar terms, however, if the tendency of the right is either to abolish the task of criticism or otherwise to render it superfluous, the foremost task of the left is to do what it has spent the last sixty years avoiding: to refuse to play by the rules.

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Some critical orientations

1. If there is at least one lesson to be learned and retained from phenomenology, it is the irreducibility of consciousness and of conscious experience. Consciousness is not primarily cognitive, however, but affective.

2. There is no such thing as a purely “literary” criticism. Criticism is not defined by its objects (just as science is not defined by the objects of its study); nor must criticism begin from the presupposed unity of a genre. The dependence works in the other direction: the definition of a genre requires a particular critical orientation. For this reason, despite himself, Leavis more than anyone has understood that the supposed rivalry between literature and philosophy concerns the right to pronounce on matters of value. Criticism is not a third term between these two (since criticism is not itself a genre) but, rather, is a method. The error of continental philosophy is to assume that philosophical criticism must resemble literary criticism in either substance or style (whence the perhaps irreparable damage to the good name of continental philosophy by the sycophants of deconstruction). The rigorous definition of criticism as method remains the unfinished task of continental philosophy.

3. Where the logic of critical philosophy was dialectical, that of philosophical criticism is chiastic.

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.

The paralysis of discourse

1. Bergson identifies laughter as the repetition of the past, i.e., as an interruption in the novelty of life. Moreover, as a social institution, comedy “lies midway between art and life. … By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment … And in this respect it turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature”. On the one hand, comic laughter inhibits the movement of vital forces by the sublimation of desire into the affirmation of the present as the presence of what is missing. Life itself, as pure difference (that which differs from itself), never appears. But, on the other hand, laughter condenses into a single, unstable moment two tendencies, which are by nature opposed—(simple) negation and the reflexivity of a subject present-to-itself—resulting in the confusion of life and enjoyment.

Yet, as a relaxation or pause in the impetus of life, laughter finds itself neither on the side of language nor action. There can be, of course, no real hiatus in life, yet this illusion of laughter, Bergson says, is akin to the illusion of dreams: “the behavior of the intellect in a dream [is this:] … the mind, enamored of itself, now seeks in the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realizing its imaginations”. It is for this reason that laughter is the expression of irony par excellence (see “Irony and Criticism”) and, further, why laughter can serve no critical function. Because laughter is neither language—we can laugh at false reasoning or bad logic, which serves as the staples of comedy—nor action, laughter is simply a refusal of criticism.

Comedy, therefore, like camp, is not only incapable of criticism but actively serves to neutralize criticism. If, as Ross claims, camp consists in the recovery of cultural productions whose sense is no longer dominated by the demands of capital, camp threatens quickly to collapse into parody or imitation and thereby acquires a sort of “zombie life”. For both camp and irony, the price paid for enjoyment is simply the loss of the objective world: anything can be enjoyed by the perfect solipsist for whom there is no ethical demand to recognize anything as genuinely demeaning, offensive, violent, or banal. There is only the subject-for-itself, baptized in enjoyment.

We see the same phenomenon in the parody of children’s play. The child who mimics adult telephone conversations engages in precisely the same parodic act as the laughter of those uninitiated into various forms of discourse (for example, mocking a foreign language or the derision of jargon) or in caricature (for example, the “seventh meditation”), both of which mark the death of criticism.

2. On the other hand, the failure of criticism has been the assumption that the mode appropriate to it is that of discourse or, alternatively, that the choice facing politics is that between theory and action. Those impatient for action who want to “cut through the bullshit” of theory refuse the entreaties of discourse to see the intolerance in tolerance or the reactionary in the revolutionary. The call for theory is therefore not simply to remind us of our history but, as Zizek has called it, a search for “lost causes” as neither a mode of historical inquiry nor one of hermeneutics (Ricoeur, for example, uses the text as a model for action whereas we might say Zizek proclaims the inverse). Ricoeur’s “critical hermeneutics” requires a dialectic between inclusion and distantiation, which brings into discourse what is initially simply given as structure. But Ricoeur never escapes the vicious circle of subject and world: if we are to know the world to which a text refers, we must rely upon “imaginative variations” of the subject that only occur in a world constituted by discourse.

We are left, however, in a precarious position. The search for “lost causes” threatens not to dissolve the sense of discourse (as, for example, in parody) but to substitute meaning for intention: it is sufficient for discourse to appear as such in its illocutionary force (as a “call to action”, for example). The intention of discourse, it turns out, is irrelevant: as long as discourse retains consistency—even the consistency that obtains across parody as a derivative sense—it remains meaningful. At this zero-point, discourse is both sufficient and unnecessary: as Sartre said, intentions vanish and it no longer matters that we all agree on why we are storming the Bastille just as long as we’re doing it. Zizek tarries at this point where the pleasure of discourse is seduced on the one hand by the laughter of enjoyment and by the force of sovereignty on the other.