Actually scary critique

Back in 2011 I facilitated a workshop at the University of Chicago on “actually scary critique.” The workshop didn’t really work out because it never really reached its object; it just ended up getting swallowed up by its own conceptual preliminaries.

Anyway, I just rediscovered a self-critical postscript that I had started writing afterwards about why that workshop didn’t really work out. Here it is, in the spirit of the thought that dwelling on our unsuccessful projects is a good idea.

The original workshop announcement:

This workshop aims to develop a mostly nonexistent genre that we could call the genre of the actually scary institutional critique. The premise: that many people have nestled away somewhere in their brains something about their institution (or department, discipline, campus, job, world, whatever) that to them is utterly intolerable, inexplicable, unjustifiable, ludicrous, unlivable, some little huddled kernel of lingering rage that can almost never be expressed, or at least that remains unresolved, because the genres in which we express institutional critique are generally either nonexistent, routinized by collegial etiquette, trivialized by being expressed only in private to friends, or else dismissed as activist hysteria or some other form of irrational excess feeling. The further premise: that it would be worth trying to develop a genre that would be equal to these non-normative moments of intense critical feelings. A genre that would break with the conventions of courtesy that make critique into an academic mode of social reproduction, that would exceed the routinized forms of mild annoyance that are normative for everyday differences of professional opinion.

Not that everyone does or ought to go around in a state of fury or other intense feeling, not at all. But it remains troubling that there are people who are really upset by various aspects of the academic world (I’m assuming we can all think of examples of this) who have no available genre with which to make their experience into something public that would actually threaten and change the people around them. Who have no genre equal to moments of real antagonism. Of course, universities have systems of unequal authority, mass complacency, self-interest, disinterest, etc, that make the inefficacy of critique far more than a question of genre. But the problem of making a critical genre that can actually scare (or touch, move, change) people in spite of all the defense mechanisms is one that seems to deserve our time.

Format: We’ll start with a discussion about critique and emotional intensity, and then move to a series of writing exercises in this possible genre. 

And here’s what I wrote afterwards:

Our aim was to have been actually scary institutional critique and we didn’t quite get there.

Psychologically speaking, I suppose you could say that this was because there wasn’t an overwhelming collective will to be scared. If anything, I felt like we were realizing a collective desire to talk, to have a bit of intellectual effervescence and being-together, to have phatic contact, to have optimism. Our meeting was not a scene of crisis or meltdown. Something scary would have been almost foreign to its atmosphere.

Procedurally speaking, this was also because we started out with a discussion of the premise of the workshop and stayed within this ostensibly preliminary moment probably longer than we should have. I wished afterwards that as a facilitator I had been more ready to cut short the discussion and skip to the writing exercises, although I was naturally eager to hear what people said, and I felt, afterwards, like I’d learned something important about criticality from that.  At the same time, I was a little perturbed to realize that we had fallen back slightly on our habitual logics of intellectual exchange: the logics of clarification, of questions and answers, of establishing our differences and similarities of opinion, of conversing. I ought to have known that these genres of talk were in a way already at cross purposes with scary criticism, because scary criticism necessarily stands outside the logic of normal conversation and outside the desire for kindness and outside the rhythm of normal temporality.  As I imagine actually scary critique, it calls for a response, yes, but not necessarily an intellectual response, not necessarily a timely response, not necessarily a thoughtful response. Maybe starting with a conversation was already a paradox.

What did, nonetheless, become clear to me is that there were some real difficulties with the premises of the workshop as I had imagined them. (1.) I had presumed that everyone has a lot at stake in the institution and therefore potentially would have an interest in being fully present and fully vulnerable to processes of critical reflection, but, as Michelle pointed out, many people have other kinds of relations with the university, more instrumental or practical relations; many want to come get some knowledge and some credentials without committing to the university as a total institution. In my view a university is indeed a total institution: both experientially, from the point of view of those of its inmates who live on campus or who at least live constantly at the scene of their work, and ideologically, inasmuch as universities are not just piecemeal providers of services but are also vehicles for visions of what society at large ought to look like, vehicles for cosmologies and totalizing ideologies. But some people don’t relate to the university so totally or so personally, and hence don’t feel much of the irrational utopian impulse to improve the institution.

(2) Which reminds me of a second problem, one chiefly raised by Lauren: that, contrary to the workshop’s tacit fantasy, we don’t live in an ideally rational public space where eloquence is necessarily power or where better means of expression or diagnosis or affect transfer necessarily mean better results. It seems to me that, of course, yes, there is no guarantee that critique will ever change anything, and there are no magical rationalisms to resort to. But at the same time, surely a total absence of criticism would be an even more unpalatable response to problematic institutional situations than an uncertain critical project? Criticism may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for change, but pragmatically speaking, can’t it help? Along these lines, I suppose I would advocate a sort of minimal optimism about the potential of critical rationality.

 But at the same time, what still feels deeply contradictory about the premises of the workshop was that I simultaneously presupposed (a) a deeply nonrational, prediscursive, utopian desire to participate in a hazardous, collective critical process and, at the same time, (b) a kind of quasi-rationalist commitment to a discursive procedure (or “genre”) by which critical desires might be given voice. I mean, given that the premise of the workshop was about trying to make critical affects audible and collectively disturbing, obviously my aim was to establish something far from a nice placid space of rational debate, but ultimately there was also a hope that this sort of critique would open towards some transformative logic (whether in the guise of a discursive rationality or otherwise).

Another ambiguity in the original program: Who was the scaring supposed to be directed at? Was it about scaring the self or scaring the other? At any rate I meant “scary critique” as a way of scaring someone; but there are such immense individual differences about what’s scary to us or to others.

One of the lessons I learned was that the scary is the particular. The scary seems to have a much more complex relationship to the generic than I had initially understood. Can there, in fact, be a genre of scary criticism, or does a “critical genre” already imply routinization and formalization that detracts from an event of scaring (or being scared)?

If it’s the latter, maybe we should revise the workshop’s premises. Maybe we should say: let’s get rid of the idea that scary critique should find its home in a genre, period. Maybe we should think of scary critique as a way of troubling genres (with apologies to Butler). Of course we can’t really communicate without genres. But trying to make a better genre is quite a different project from trying to avoid being generic.


As an afterward to this (in 2017): I see in hindsight that this whole rubric has a family resemblance with Bruno Latour’s 2004 mediatation, “Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam.” But on re-reading Latour’s essay, I’m disappointed to rediscover that he thinks of critique as fundamentally epistemological. In that essay, “critique” is basically a set of scripts for demystifying false idols and attributing unconscious motives, whose underlying purpose is to show that the critic “is always right”:

When naive believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naive believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see. (239)

Latour is of course describing something real about academia here (though see also Eve Sedgwick’s essay on “paranoid reading,” which is much more psychodynamic about critical affects and which I’d like to write about in detail). But critique in my terms here is not really supposed to be about epistemological classification (“X is real, but Y is a fetish”) and it’s not supposed to be about attacking an Other or gratifying a Self.

To critique, in the way I had in mind, is to establish affective solidarities in the face of bad circumstances. In other words, critique is about giving voice to the intolerable (and there are many kinds of intolerability). It’s about breaking with the convention that we must appear to be ok. Rather than being about self-fortification (as in the weirdly anal-retentive script that Latour describes), it’s supposed to be about thinking about how we come undone

We already have plenty of rituals — like “confession,” “therapy,” or “critical analysis” — that limit and channel these moments of intolerability; but they usually end up being functionalized, just another lid keeping people steaming in their pots. Nevertheless, these rituals aren’t entirely hollow. Essays that dwell on intolerable moments — Viola Allo’s Leaving remains one of my favorites — are still powerful and deserve some sort of amplification that they don’t always get. And I like the critical essay format — more than, say, the personal confession — precisely because it gives voice to the impersonal side of being undone. It amplifies what’s collective about bad news.

I’m just not sure whether this form of affective amplification can be generic. It seems like a bad contradiction to hope that any genre can reliably produce an event of rupture.

One thought on “Actually scary critique”

  1. note to self:

    It comes to my mind that a new genre can itself be a critically consequential event, so in that sense, even though genres are forms of enclosure, the making of a new form of enclosure can be an opening. (metaphorically.)

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