On What Critique Really Entails

Jodi Dean wrote a short post on critique some time ago that everyone loved (read, reposted) it and surely to critique that post is to live up to the stereotypes that are decried in it. Readers in the comments, of course, praised her positive assessment of the state of critique and so on. The “uncritical acceptance of the value of critique” and so on. Mostly by critique here is meant something very simple like “criticizing someone’s position” – obviously any position can be criticized for any reason. However, it seems that the assumption in critique is always that of correction, otherwise it is not a critique but a dismissal. When I dismiss something as unrealistic or idiotic, I do not critique/criticize it. I couldn’t care less about certain realms of political or philosophical activity. I dismiss them with whatever dismissive gesture I manage to formulate – my dismissal is not final, but it is a definitive gesture of non-engagement. Critique does not entail dismissal but engagement with the material that is being critiqued – critique is thus a form of engagement. There are of course other forms of engagement with material, but critique, in my judgment, is the best form of engagement for the following simple reasons: 

1) It is corrective and therefore positive. It is based on the assumption that things could and should get better. It is based on the realist assumption that there is a difference between the way things are and the way they are presented as being, and that it is possible to compare the two and suggest a better way of dealing with a specific situation/concept, a way that allows for better correspondence with how things really are. So in any “flat” position – either philosophical or political – there is no room for critique. But it is impossible to hold any sort of realist view and also claim things flatly are the way they are.

2) It is more fundamental than unadulterated praise because it is based on a more fundamental (“critical”) attitude toward acquisition of new information: doubt. Naive acceptance is secondary, it is based on familiarity with the world and its inhabitants. I tend to eat up anything an authority on the subject matter tells me because I have been trained to respect authority in general and this particular person’s views in particular. We are all critical “by nature” – we became non-critical and gullible “by culture” (if these terms have any real meaning anymore).

3) It is concerned primarily (whether explicitly or implicitly) with the collective good, the common truth. Again, simple dismissal aside, critique is not an individual enterprise, it is effectively a collective effort. The points of critique do not arise from individual authors, but from communities of readers and writers (as well as, if we leave the cushy world of academia, particular political actors and situations). Effective critique grows out from communal dissatisfaction with the present (material) conditions. How can you tell that the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be? You don’t unless someone tells you that they aren’t. There isn’t any sort of “natural justice” that “naturally” arises in individual human beings who, having experienced oppression and exploitation, “naturally” rise to the opinion that their situation must be changed.

Ultimately, critique is only destructive of ideas/actions that are worthy of being destroyed, that shows themselves to be worthy of destruction. If there is nothing effective and truly innovative about them, then critique will leave nothing standing. But its assumption is that there is something worth discovering and affirming, and thus destroying pseudo-philosophical constructions is doing everyone a favor. More critique is better than less critique, because it is a form of seeking the truth, this outdated notion that, however, is still very much around, because without it there is no real sense in engaging any position. The world without critique is then the world without truth. Some are happy to live in such a world because everything they think up is automatically affirmed as true due to this very fact that it happened to occur in their heads…

Or something like that…


15 thoughts on “On What Critique Really Entails

  1. This is surely right and a corrective to the view that critics critique everything for the sake of it, an idea barely above the schoolyard “haters always gonna hate”. And as if critique is always negative and not also implicitly projecting something positive, that which would no longer be necessary to critique, as you point out. In any case, better critique than Gelassenheit. If there’s a path to hell paved with good intentions, then Gelassenheit is it. Zizek himself succumbs to it on occasion. And for the Heideggerian, who has no excuses, it’s not as if they can even be true to their word; every moment of their waking lives is parasitic upon the transformation of ‘nature’. They barely step into the same river twice. Every object they come into contact with passes from substance into accident, from aggregate or relata into singularity and back again. To leave individual substances alone as if doing ‘justice’ to their uniqueness, is a) to have known definitively what is substance and what is accident (hence the laughable fallacy of ‘withdrawal’) and b) just as much to further commodification in a world where almost everything is ground up into the machine of exchange value. The same goes for human individuals: one does them a disservice by leaving them be to the pseudo individuality and substantiality generated for them by our particular society. If the Heideggerians would ‘let be’ just those things which were uncommodified (as if these could clearly and without contradiction be demarcated), it would be a start, but since an asteroid or a coral reef is homologous with McDonalds or Rupert Murdoch or a USAF drone, there’s little hope of this.

    • The issue of individual critique versus critique as a kind of collective action is something that I think related to the sort of definition of truth that one operates with. In certain sense I see the appeal of eliminating the very primitive “correctness” model, but in this case it is being dismissed without being replaced with a more sophisticated notion, thus producing a simple “anything goes” attitude. Certainly even outright bullshit can be critiqued in terms of internal consistency, but it is still a level of individuals addressing individual claims about reality – “private ontology” – and it doesn’t seem that true critique wants to say on that level.

  2. It seems like these “flat” ontologies reduce truth to the de facto (well, at the end of the day . . . we’re all the same!) and dismiss the de jure as correlationism. I just can’t see how such an ontology can accommodate the ethical, if we simply resign to facts. Isn’t an ethical act that which cannot be grounded in facts, but only in ourselves? Otherwise, responsibility become vacuous! Fine, call the de jure “correlationism” but one cannot deny its power to move us. But movement is precisely that which a flat ontology cannot think at all, because it doesn’t allow for negativity or difference . . .

    Or, is it simply a case of me “misinterpreting” the whole thing?

  3. I suppose that the “flatness” here implies a kind of one-dimensionality – there is no other plane from which this plane of fact can be evaluated. My question is how this view comes about – how do we gain this valuable insight that everything is flat? If everything is flat, then nothing is flat. There has to be some way of contrasting the “flat” with the “non-flat” – otherwise it smacks of simple dogmatic (oracular) statement of fact.

    The worship of fact and the critique of such worship have a long history. If there is to be any sense to thinking, there has to be some sort of distancing, dissonance, gap, otherwise it is immediate intuition and so on that hardly qualifies as knowledge/truth. If the answer to the question “how do we know?” is a simple “we do” then it isn’t really an intelligent answer.

    Critique here has a basic function of reflection, of retrospection – if we can’t critique, it means we can’t reflect on what is being put forward as truth. Therefore, we can’t think about it. I’m sure that the initial discussion was about the meanness or bitterness of critique – fair enough, but there is a difference between identifying an improper mode of critique and rejecting critique altogether…

  4. First off, Welcome back, Mikhail — you were missed.


    If everything is flat, then nothing is flat. There has to be some way of contrasting the “flat” with the “non-flat” – otherwise it smacks of simple dogmatic (oracular) statement of fact.

    That doesn’t strike me as right. We could paint everything in the universe blue, couldn’t we? And there’s certainly no problem saying (x) Fx (i.e. for every value, of x, x has some predicate F). I think your gesture, Mikhail, reproduces the Roman dictum concerning property: somethign that belongs to everyone belongs to no one. That makes sense because of the meaning of property, not because of some logical point. For what it’s worth, WVO Quine also claimed his ontology was flat (i.e. the very idea of fundamentality and grounding are no longer problems for metaphysics — all that’s left is a list of one’s ontological commitments)

    That point aside, I think the worst thing the blogosphere ever did was to actually interact with the objectologists. This is one of those cases where a dismissal, and a gesture to the relevant philosophical literature (e.g. saying that objects are systems involves a basic mistake concerning what a system is and what’s an instance of a system) would have been more than sufficient. Instead, the criticism produced a more palatable form of nonsense

  5. Hmm… your remark is valid, I think. But in my own defense, I think I was trying to suggest that things are flat in relation to some sense of non-flat, in comparison with non-flat. Would painting a universe blue not in this very gesture eliminate all the other colors and then eliminate the very notion of “blue”? The universe that is blue in its entirety is just colored then as we lose any capacity to contrast this blue with, say, red.

    I’m not entirely against “flat ontologies” that are properly posited and explained. Simply stating that one’s ontology is flat is fine. “My ontology is flat” sounds like a reasonable statement. But I’m not exactly sure what it means. Does it mean “Unlike your ontology, my ontology is flat” or does it mean “My ontology is flat because my ontology captures the way reality is. There are different kinds of wrong involved, it seems with these two positions. First involves a basic contradiction of a “private ontology” (a la “private language” – sheer nonsense) – if ontologies are simple matters of preference, than please ontologize away. Second, however, is what bothers me most about “flat ontologies” – it’s a claim to some kind of truth about reality in general that is basically baseless, without any explanation or justification. It’s just there, sort of, take it or leave it.

    • Would painting a universe blue not in this very gesture eliminate all the other colors and then eliminate the very notion of “blue”? The universe that is blue in its entirety is just colored then as we lose any capacity to contrast this blue with, say, red.

      we would still perceive things as blue, though, wouldn’t we? The comparison issue is logically distinct form the property possession issue.

      That said, I take it that the whole flat ontology thing is just fadish. Like bowties or pompadours. it’s part of the hole paratactical, associative, rhizomatic stuff (as opposed to hypotactical, inferential, and arborescent stuff). There’s supposed to be an alternate mode of reasoning in all of that, and i guess one of the problems is that we don’t see the alternative, nor does anyone deign to explain it. But in any case I think it’s impossible to have a flat ontology because you lose the idea of fundamentality and you can’t differentiate between types and tokens. That’s going to lead you to a platonic flux problem. Maybe that’s what you’re getting after?

      • Hey, take that back about the bow ties!

        I see your point about the blue. My point then was more concerned with designation of blue as blue – and in the “flat” case then if an ontology is designated as “flat” how do we know what flat is if everything is flat etc etc. I conceded that this isn’t the clearest of my statements – should give it another think.

        Your second paragraph definitely drives in the same direction that I was initially trying to pursue. The impossibility to differentiate and so on. Perhaps I need to be more clear in what I understand by “flat ontology” – isn’t it a sort of monism in which everything is on the same plane, a kind of “it’s all one blanket and various protuberances and knurls appearing as something non-flat but in fact part of the same vast flatness? And yet if there is appearing and reality, if there is any sense in which one is a realist (things are the way they appear), then realism cannot be flat, can it?

        Your move.

    • I’m afraid I have to stand by my bow tie remark….

      Anyway, I’m not an expert on flat ontologies, but I thought the point was really just to shift the way we understand fundamentality. There is no notion of substance (hypokeimenon) for a flat ontology, in other words. So there’s no fundamental entity or atom underwriting everything. There’s no, ‘really real’ or ‘one’ that groups the ‘many.’ I’m not sure why that’s supposed to be helpful, really, but I take it that that’s the idea.

      In Quine’s thinking, the point is just to say that ontology no longer has any substantive structure. There are just commitments we have in virtue of practices we undertake (if you do math, you’re committed to abstract entities, and when you play hockey, you’re committed to the rules of the game — but hockey pucks and abstract entitties have the same ontological status; one is not more fundamental than the other.

      In his piece in Metametaphysics Jonathan Schaffer shows that there’s always structure in flat ontologies and hence always some form of subordination. So there’s really no such thing as a truly flat ontology. What we find is something kind of warty.

      • So the question than is, ignoring your obvious error of dismissing bow ties for the moment in order to pursue this exchange, what is the purpose of trying to think up a flat ontology? To imagine a world without structure? Probably because structure is oppressive or some shit like that…

        If flat ontology is then a kind of suggestion that there is no essence, then perhaps it isn’t at all like monism – if monism is a simple suggestion that everything is made from the same stuff – or am I drifting away from the point?

        Are you talking about Schaffer’s essay “On What Grounds What” from Metametaphysics collection? I have the book, I think I better read that essay now!

    • Yes do read Schaffer’s piece. It’s great – that whole book is pretty amazing actually.

      And yes, I do tend to think that flat ontologies aren’t monisms because that would requiire one to take something to be fundamental. Notice also that there can’t be much of a sense of withdrawal either…. Now I do think the question we should be asking is why on earth a flat ontology is something we want, and what purpose does it serve. Everything else can wait until we have answers to those things….

      • Ooff… already liking it: “Thus the Quinean view promises what Yablo calls ‘‘Ontology the progressive research program (not
        to be confused with ontology the swapping of hunches about what exists)’’” – isn’t OOO basically a kind of “swapping of hunches about what is or might be an object”?

  6. I shall report on Schaffer later then.

    As for “flat ontology” and its need, for me it’s been fairly easy to explain – fundamentality implies hierarchy of sorts (some realities being more fundamental than others), hierarchy is, of course, oppression, oppression is force/repression/power, all of this is bad bad bad. Critique is enforcement, totalitarianism and so on.

    Voilà, la démocratie des objets!

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