The question of a compassionate critical theory

 January 2017

Why has it become necessary to take a step back and write critically about critique itself? Has critique somehow ended up in a place where it has no real impact on the world, where it finds itself impotent to effect political action and the change that it espouses? For Jacques Rancière, Bruno Latour, and others, it is clear that this is precisely the place critique has come to occupy. So what are their arguments, and if this is indeed the situation in which critical theory finds itself, how can we hope to rehabilitate it? What would a mode of critique that holds real power of impact and that can spurn and effect radical change look like? What if, in fraught political times like the ones we are currently living, critique found itself empowered in the knowledge of the crucial necessity of its work and the real possibility of positive change? As Latour asks, ‘[w]hat would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction?’1

In his essay ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’, Rancière starts by stating that he does not believe critical thought to be obsolete. As he points out, many authors before him have devoted their time and thought to the same issue, many arriving at the conclusion that there is no longer any place in society for critical theory. For Rancière, the procedures of critical thought are alive and well, only they have been co-opted for the opposite ends to those for which they originally arose. He writes that ‘[t]hey still function very well, precisely in the discourse of those who proclaim their extinction.’2 In general terms, Rancière’s critique of critique is based primarily on the notion that it has somehow slipped and lost sight, in Marxist terms, of the universal, moving instead towards a critique and denunciation of the particular—towards an abstract idea of a de-personalized individual, the “common” person living in the shackles of ideology. For Rancière, critique has become inert because it has lost sight of its purpose and instead has become concerned with ‘a new critique of the commodity and the spectacle whose depredations are re-characterized as the crimes of democratic individuals.’3 It would appear that theorists (academics, philosophers, critics, or whichever other label we choose) have become content to simply stand on their soapbox and berate all the poor oppressed mortals below who can’t or choose not to see their cages for what they are, who have ‘bought into’ the fantasies of ideology. Rancière writes:

This analysis invites us to liberate ourselves from the forms and content of the critical tradition. But it only does so at the price     of reproducing its logic. It once again tells us that we are victims of a comprehensive structure of illusion, victims of our ignorance and resistance to an irresistible total process of development of the productive forces. […] It is easy to recognize in this line of argument the indestructible logic of the Communist Manifesto. It is not for nothing that a putative postmodernism has had to borrow from it its canonical formula: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. Everything supposedly becomes fluid, liquid, gaseous; and it only remains to laugh at ideologues who still believe in the reality of reality, misery and wars.4

For Latour too, this shift towards a personalizing critique—one that not only points out the oppression but rebukes the people who have readily walked into it—is the primary obstacle on the path to a truly emancipatory critique. Latour counterposes two positions, that of fact and what he refers to as the “fairy” position. In his analogy, the critic sees the masses acting ideologically and points out that ‘what the naïve believers are doing with objects is simply a projection of their wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself.’5 In other words, any faith they place on their “idols” (be it capitalism, a religion, self-improvement, etc.) and the motivation these provide for action are simply products of their own ingenuity and power, here applied, as Latour notes, to ‘indifferent matters’. Of course, as he goes on to note, this is not where the critical procedure stops, for rather than empowering the oppressed by making them see their own potential, it goes on to point out how even this application of ingenuity is the product of myriad determinant factors and modes of discourse. And so, as Latour writes, the critic can position himself as superior to the masses and think, to quote Latour’s imagined critic, “You, ordinary fetishists, believe you are free but, in reality, you are acted on by forces you are not conscious of. Look at them, look, you blind idiot.” He writes:

Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind? Why critique, this most ambiguous pharmakon, has become such a potent euphoric drug? You are always right! When naïve 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. 6

So how did we get here? How did critique end up so far off the mark? We can find a possible clue in the work of Bernard Stiegler. In his essay ‘To Love, to Love Me, to Love Us: From September II to April 21’, Stiegler puts forth the notion of a primordial narcissism, one that is negated at every turn by an increasingly homogenized consumerist society. This primordial narcissism, for him, is ‘that structure of the psyche which is indispensable for functioning, that part of self-love which can sometimes become pathological, but without which any capacity for love would be impossible.’7 He takes as his starting point the case of Richard Durn, perpetrator of the Nanterre massacre of 2002. For Stiegler, Durn’s violent act can be seen as a brutal assertion of that primordial narcissism. As Stiegler points out, in Durn’s personal diary, published after the fact, he had written about lacking a “feeling of existing”—a feeling he thought he could only reclaim by attacking what he saw as the ‘alterity that made him suffer, that did not return him any image’,8 symbolized in the municipal council.

For Stiegler, this narcissistic suffering is at the heart of any violent and radical acting out, but it is also driving the self-reproduction of the system that gives it life in the first place. This is a view he shares with Ernest Becker, who posits that any buying into the promises of capitalism is at the deepest level an attempt to assert one’s individuality and agency according to the principles of the very system which perpetuates the feeling of their lack. He writes that  ‘power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.’9 He goes on to state that ‘money is the human mode par excellence of coolly denying animal boundedness, the determinism of nature.’10 For Giorgio Agamben, too, speaking in his case of what he calls “apparatuses”, ‘heterogeneous set[s] consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions’,11 the loss of a feeling of subjectivity is at the root of the problem. He writes:

[T]he same individual, the same substance, can be the place of multiple processes of subjectification: the user of cellular phones, the web surfer, the writer of stories, the tango aficionado, the anti-globalization activist, and so on and so forth. The boundless growth of apparatuses in our time corresponds to the equally extreme proliferation in processes of subjectification. This may produce the impression that in our time, the category of subjectivity is wavering and losing its consistency.12

But perhaps this narcissistic suffering is also at the root of critique’s current predicament. If we accept Latour’s analysis, we see that critique has become less about enacting  or even encouraging change and more about asserting our own ability to see past the smoke screens of ideology. By placing ourselves, and ourselves alone, outside of the reach of ideology, we buy into a separate ideological standpoint—namely, that simply seeing is enough, that pointing out to those who are blind that they are living a life of falsity will bring us a feeling of individuation that we are currently lacking. That everyone will see how intelligent, how perceptive, how profound we are. We want to hear everyone around us exclaiming, “If only we had the intellect, the talent, the disposition to be able to see the chains that bind us!” And this, of course, is not much else than an attempt to assert an immutable self outside of external deterministic flows, a self that is not animal, not bound. As Agamben writes, ‘what is at stake, to be precise, is not an erasure or an overcoming, but rather a dissemination that pushes to the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity.’13 Stiegler’s point in his essay, and in ‘How I Became a Philosopher’, the essay that forms the first part of his book ‘Acting Out’, is that there is no innate disposition towards critical thought or philosophy. He writes, ‘[i]n the philosophical vocation—if such a thing exists—there does not seem to be this dimension of specialty. No one is devoted to philosophy in particular; all of us could be devoted to philosophy, which would immediately constitute a gift, precisely, common to all. […] All of us, precisely insofar as we form a we, would be devoted in potential to philosophy.’14

Essentially, this means considering equality as the starting condition for all interactions, for all critique, and for all teaching, rather than their destination. This brings us back to Rancière, whose work is deeply concerned with this conception of intellectual equality, and the possibility of a truly emancipatory critical praxis. ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, the book which includes the essay we have been reflecting on, arose as a response to some of the ideas that Rancière first explored in his seminal 1991 book ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’, namely the concepts of “emancipation” and “stultification”. To understand Rancière’s arguments in the later essay, as well as what he proposes as a way forward for critique, it is crucial to understand these two concepts and how they fit into his overall project, not only as a critical theorist, but as a political activist, educator, and art critic.

‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’ deals in a semi-narrative way with the ideas of the French educator Joseph Jacotot, who developed a method of education he termed “intellectual emancipation” or panecastic method. Rancière recounts how Jacotot managed to teach French to a group of Flemish speakers without himself knowing Flemish. Through the use of a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s ‘Telémaque’, he charged the students to learn the French text through the use of the translation. Jacotot asked the students to go through the first half of the book, and then repeat it over and over until they could recite it from memory. He then asked the students to write essays in French explaining their thoughts about what they had learned. Rancière writes:

He had to find out where the route opened by chance had taken them, what had been the results of that desperate empiricism. And how surprised he was to discover that the students, left to themselves, managed this difficult step as well as many French could have done! Was wanting all that was necessary for doing? Were all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?15

Jacotot was trained, as most of us probably are, in the model of education in which the teacher in all his expertise must, through the method of explication, impart his knowledge on the ignorant student who will then, through this gift, be able to rise to the level of the teacher. But what he discovered through this experiment was truly radical—that anyone, of whatever background, could be given the tools to develop their own intelligence and learn whatever they put those tools in service of. The former method, based on an assumption of inequality, breeds stultification—as Rancière writes, ‘there is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another’.16 The latter brings us to intellectual emancipation, ‘the consciousness of that equality, of that reciprocity that alone permits intelligence to be realized by ver­ification. What stultifies the common people is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelli­gence.’17

Let us imagine a critique that places equality at its base and moves from there. One that is aware of the multiplicity of experience and subjectivity and that knows how to adjust for it. As Stiegler writes, ‘significance has a part essentially tied to memory: objects, and more generally, the “significants” […] only appear to me as echoes of my memory, a protention, that they can signi-fy, make signs, make signs to me. [It is] a question of learning to cultivate high expectations.’18 What would it mean to do critique in a way which, rather than vilify or rebuke, provided the student, the reader, the worker, with the tools to, as it were, cultivate those high expectations and develop their own capacity for critical thought? Would such a critique rehabilitate and make place for platitudinous and un-academic values such as compassion and empathy? Would it consider the people it speaks to as individuals—individuals with unique experiences, who see the world in unique ways? For Rancière, this is the crux of the matter. The choice between one and the other is, for him, the ultimate fork in the road that leads to emancipation.

One must choose to attribute reason to real individuals or to their fictive unity. One must choose between making an unequal society out of equal men and making an equal society out of unequal men. Whoever has some taste for equality shouldn’t hesitate: individuals are real beings, and so­ciety a fiction. It’s for real beings that equality has value, not for a fiction. One need only learn how to be equal men in an unequal so­ciety. This is what being emancipated means.19


1 Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, 2004, p. 248
2 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, London, 2009, p. 25
3 ibid., p. 33
4 ibid., p. 31
5 Latour, op. cit., p. 237
6 ibid., p. 238-239
7 Bernard Stiegler, Acting Out, Stanford University Press, California, 2009, p. 39
8 ibid., p. 40
9 Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, Free Press, New York, 1975, p. 81
10 ibid., p. 82
11 Giorgio Agamben, What is an apparatus? and other essays, Stanford University Press, California, 2009, p. 2
12 ibid., p. 14-15
13 ibid., p. 15
14 Stiegler, op. cit., p. 2
15 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Stanford University Press, California, 1991, p. 2
16 ibid., p. 14
17 ibid., p. 39
18 Stiegler, op. cit., p. 28
19 Rancière (1991), p. 133