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.

Irony and criticism

To the extent that romanticism has ever thought itself as capable of criticism, its figural gesture par excellence is that of irony. This is a gesture of negation purified of objective intention—a withdraw into the absolute will of the ego who is able to live amidst a hostile world only by denying it with a simple “no”. The ironist is the one who is able to live in the world without being of the world. But this is precisely an immediate negation that “is frightened of being polluted by contact with finitude” (Hegel) and easily devolves into the sentimentality of an adolescent defiance of mood at the expense of action. Even an absolutization of negation (e.g., Kierkegaard) cannot free itself from the exteriority of the world for the ironist whose only experience is his own: viz., the power (dunamis) of pure possibility—the possibility always to be otherwise than the objective presence of the world “taken ironically”. The monism of infinite subjectivity, however, precludes the possibility of action and, therefore, of criticism. A simple negation is always beholden to the given; so too “playing with nothing” is obviously undialectical and it is not clear that the ironist is even capable of self-criticism, which would require the mediation of an other. This is why, for example, at least one modernism would look to the sublimation of comic laughter as the transcendental moment of criticism (Nietzsche); another would find, in the late Beethoven, subjectivity as “an irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance as art. Of the works themselves, it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher …” (Adorno). A critical art leaves us, in either case, with the bare, naked object in the only form to which it is available to us as an object of criticism—in the subject pulled out of itself to be dashed against the contradictions and injustices from which it cannot escape since, for us, there can be no escape.