Essay

We Have Never Been Critical

by Dalglish Chew

That’s why I’m here: to criticize the ideology of information, to debunk the many myths of information technologies, to gain a critical edge over all the technical hype. If not, believe me, I would still be in Silicon Valley, and I would be making a lot more money …[1]

Even among literary critics engaged in theorizing alternatives to the paranoid, symptomatic, and suspicious modes of reading that characterized literary scholarship in the late 20th century, the term “postcritical” has yet to gain currency as a term of professional self-understanding. Nevertheless, to the extent that efforts to invent new methods of reading tend inexorably to characterize their originality by reorganizing the recent history of literary criticism according to discontinuous paradigms (paranoid/reparative, symptomatic/surface, suspicious/reflective), “postcritical” becomes useful as a descriptor that foregrounds the historiographical work of periodization such theoretical projects perform.[2] After all, in justifying the “we” invoked by the title of the special issue of Representations “The Way We Read Now,” it is precisely this move that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus make when they write that their title “connotes change, the sense that now we do things a bit differently than they did back then.”[3] To describe such projects to generate new modes of reading as postcritical is thus to grasp not only their methodological novelty, but to attend to the operations through which a postcritical “we” achieves its self-definition by simultaneously narrating the history of a critical “they.”

The implications of this periodizing perspective being too several to elucidate in a single essay, I restrict myself here to exfoliating Best and Marcus’ suggestion that generational differences mediate our access to postcritical knowledge practices. Via a reading of two fictional dialogues by Bruno Latour, I suggest how generational structures of transmission inflect our attachments to critique, and thus also our understanding of its alternatives. Although “postcritical” is not a term Latour has ever employed to describe his work, his efforts to dismantle what he calls “critical barbarity” in order to avoid “address[ing] with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one” qualify him as a postcritical theorist in precisely the sense outlined above.[4]

Sandwiched between the two parts of Reassembling the Social, the first fictional dialogue to which I attend here stages a conversation between a graduate student and a professor on the topic of Actor Network Theory (ANT). Witty and engaging like so much of Latour’s writing, the essay had me chuckling at the professor’s sardonic responses to his hapless graduate student’s concerns, even though this “(somewhat) Socratic” encounter had obviously been stage-managed to guide me to a foregone conclusion in which ANT prevails over its opposition.[5] Despite my enthusiasm for Latour’s arguments, I propose that the importance of his dialogue lies in its invitation to theorize the postcritical from the generational vantage point occupied by the fictional graduate student who, as I will suggest, has never been critical.

The rhetorical function performed by the student in Latour’s dialogue is doubtlessly to exemplify and rehearse the views of a conventionally critical intellectual position, whose methodological dogmas and narrowly construed definitions of what it means to be politically relevant it would then be the task of the savvy Latour-proxy to deftly dispatch. By choosing to ventriloquize these views through a graduate student, however, Latour inadvertently complicates his polemic. To wit, a persistent cloud of contingency hangs over everything the student says, leaving us with the feeling that there remains something unanswerable about his attachment to the critical, beyond the reach of Latour’s unrelentingly ironic missives. Stricken with self-doubt (“I’m just a PhD student, but you’re a professor”), nervous about what his supervisors will think (“But that’s not what my supervisor wants”), anxious to complete his doctorate on a deadline (“I have just eight more months”), and wondering about the wisdom of his career choices – the critical, for this student, resembles less a fully-formed intellectual position than an assemblage of dimly sensed imperatives.[6] 

In order to grasp more readily how contingent and multiply mediated the graduate student’s desire to be critical finally is, we need only compare him to another of Latour’s fictional interlocutors. In a second, unpublished dialogue between two professors of science studies, it quickly becomes clear how critical practices get inflected differently when embodied in the person of Latour’s intellectual and generational peer. Although no less merciless in ironizing his fictional colleague’s views, Latour employs different terms of contention. Instead of taking issue with the way doctoral students are trained as he did in the first dialogue, here he objects to his interlocutor’s fixation on a shared historical experience (“If it doesn’t resemble the confrontations of May ’68, or the riot gas-filled streets of Seattle, you don’t believe it’s politics?”) and the version of critique that it privileges (“Did you find [the empty posture of denouncing] particularly effective? Do you remember the 70s?”).[7] Consequently, the reasons behind this second interlocutor’s refusal to relinquish her critical distance have none of the indeterminacy that plagued the graduate student’s desire for a critical edge in the first dialogue. Unlike his hesitant recapitulations of critique’s injunctions (“But you always need to … don’t you?”), her convictions that “activism is the salt of the earth” and that “politics […] is about defending the losers” carry the weight and legibility of living memory behind them.[8]

Compared to this fictional professor, for whom being critical names not merely the routinized habits of disciplinary convention, but a historically determinate intellectual subjectivity wrought of lived experience, the graduate student of Latour’s dialogue has never been critical. While the former engages in practices of critique with the self-assurance of one who securely inhabits an identity position, the latter’s halting, tentative justifications of his views express the desire to be critical in a far more estranged and contingent form. By thus revealing the practices of critique as implicated in this complex structure of generational transmission, the mise-en-scène of Latour’s fictional dialogues uncannily captures the situation in which those of us who began our academic training in the 21st century find ourselves. Educated by those who presided over the rise of Theory and who fought in the culture wars, we have inherited the habits of critique without a living connection to the historical events from which they emerged. This is not to say, however, that this belatedness diminishes our attachments to the critical, which often continue to exert motive forces no less compelling in their affective intensity. After all, like Latour’s fictional graduate student, many of us have forgone better-paying careers in places like the Silicon Valley for the precariousness of the academic profession because the latter held out the prospect of a “critical edge” – that is, of being trained to perform politically relevant, if not especially remunerative, intellectual work.

The affective ambivalences of this generational position were brought home to me towards the end of Reassembling the Social where, despite the relatively bloodless desire for the critical personified by Latour’s fictional student, criticality becomes characteristic of his entire cohort. Close to end of his book, Latour sagely commends this student along with “the young fellows who enter into departments of political science, science studies, women studies, and cultural studies to gain a critical edge, to ‘make a difference’, and to render the world more livable,” for being “right to strive for political relevance.”[9] In an odd rhetorical move that I can only describe as a doubly qualified backhanded compliment, Latour says of these young fellows that even though “their formulations may be naïve,” nonetheless “it’s hard to see how one could call oneself a sociologist and look down on them as if theirs was just some adolescent dream.”[10]

By force of a startling chiasmic inversion, this “they” (that is, we) who have inherited from “their” (that is, our) teachers a desire to be critical will now provide those same teachers with an occasion to recuperate this desire in a wiser, less naïve, less adolescent form. In Latour’s implicit periodizing narrative, the generational position personified by the graduate student finds itself owning up to a desire for the critical that has never fully been its own. In unpacking the dynamics of avowal and disavowal implied in Latour’s invocation of a generational “they,” my aim isn’t to make some dramatic claim that his postcritical theorizing harbors an attachment to the critical as its deep, dark secret. Indeed, Latour in fact acknowledges in the essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” that it “feels so good to be a critical mind” because “you are always right.”[11] However, this glancing acknowledgment of critique’s affective gratifications ultimately plays only a peripheral role in Latour’s account. To elaborate Latour’s own metaphor, he neglects to account for the function good feelings perform in the engine of critique, which for him operates as a kind of intellectual perpetuum mobile where one can always debunk the views of others by employing the “salvo of antifetishism” on some objects and the “solid causality of objectivity” on others.[12] Indeed, by Latour’s own reckoning, the undoing of this “critical barbarity” would consist merely in the “rather easy” matter of bringing its logical contradictions to light, a task he performs with much panache in his essay.[13]

In his efforts to dislodge our attachments to critical practices, Latour thus approaches them as one would a misguided intellectual position – that is, as a set of ideas that need only be logically refuted in order to make way for inevitable insight. However, as anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of trying to intellectualize one’s way out dysfunctional attachments to objects, people, or habits will readily understand, it takes more than just rational debate to produce meaningful change. In order to generate a robust theory of postcritical methods, we require not only the rational dismantling of critique that Latour performs, but also finer-grained, affectively realist accounts of our attachments to the set of knowledge practices called critical.[14] Indeed, as Rita Felski points out in “Suspicious Minds,” even though “to acknowledge the affective dimensions of argument” is “merely to acknowledge the obvious,” it nevertheless remains that “the role of such factors in the shaping of contemporary scholarship is rarely acknowledged.”[15] For this reason, the periodizing operation in which these attachments get displaced onto a generationally distinct “they” that is adamantly different from the postcritical “we” that one wishes to call forth strikes me as counterproductive.

For we who have never been critical, such rhetorical displacements are neither necessary nor possible. Having never been able to fully inhabit the critical position in more than an estranged, belated form, it makes just as little sense for us to disavow our desires to be critical as a species of embarrassing juvenilia, as it does for us to claim them as the stuff of intellectual biography. The singular contribution of this generational vantage point to theorizing the postcritical emerges, then, from this inability to either fully own or disown our attachments to critique. When viewed from this middle distance, our untimely, ambivalent desires to be critical retain their productively problematical status as desires. To be sure, like Latour’s fictional interlocutors, the generational positions I map out here represent only heuristic simplifications of the many ways that scholars actually relate to critique. My hope, finally, is that the affective contingencies uniquely foregrounded in the position of we who have never been critical will function as a provocation to all literary scholars to develop an affectively realist vocabulary for theorizing our attachments to critical knowledge practices. The vision of postcritical theorizing I have in mind would thus not only undertake an intellectual contestation of critique, but also cultivate an epistemological capaciousness capable of comprehending a wider range of affective relations to it.


[1] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 151.

[2] “We cannot not periodize”: what Fredric Jameson has said of investigations into modernity might thus equally apply to our investigations into critique and its alternatives as well. See Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity (London: Verso, 2012), 23–30.

[3] Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108.1 (2009): 2.

[4] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 240, 231.

[5] The essay first appeared as “A Dialog on Actor Network Theory with a (Somewhat) Socratic Professor,” in The Social Study of Information and Communication Study, ed. Chrisanthi Avgerou, Claudio Ciborra, and Frank Land (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[6] Latour, Reassembling the Social, 156, 143, 144.

[7] Bruno Latour, “Critical Distance or Critical Proximity? A Dialogue in Honor of Donna Haraway,” (unpublished paper, 2005), http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-113-HARAWAY.pdf (accessed January 26, 2015), 2, 4.

[8] Latour, Reassembling the Social, 144; “Critical Distance or Critical Proximity,” 2, 3.

[9] Latour, Reassembling the Social, 259.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” 238.

[12] Ibid., 239.

[13] Ibid., 240.

[14] See, for instance, Rita Felski, “Suspicious Minds,” Poetics Today 32.2 (2011): 215–34; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 123–51; and Dalglish Chew, “Feeling Utopian: Demystification and the Management of Affect,” Cultural Critique (forthcoming).

[15] Felski, “Suspicious Minds,” 219.

Dalglish Chew
Dalglish Chew is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford University. He is currently at work on a dissertation entitled Feeling Critical: Literary Practices of Postwar Critique. His essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, and Cultural Critique.

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