The Work of Warning (the question of critique)
What elevates mere criticism into the realm of critique? We hear the latter term used in the day-to-day within contexts such as literature and art. In a life-drawing class, for instance, there is a kind of climax which is simply called ‘critique’, wherein one views the efforts of one’s peers and reacts aloud to them. It is meant as a learning experience of course, but its pedagogy is rather direct, even approaching the stentorian pending the tone. ‘Criticism’, as referred to in literary circles is actually meant to be critique as well, with a similar sense of outcome for those involved, though often at a distance from one another and keeping the still recent idea that authorial intent is no longer part of the equation. In fashion also, critique is leveled at the designer first and foremost, and more abstractly, editors will offer their opinions about trends and market alike. But all of this is quite quotidian and none approaches the more substantive sensibility that critique, thought of philosophically but also even ethically, brings forth.
Criticism is to opinion what critique is to belief. The one may be had by anyone, as an individual, and can be offered up with a grain of proverbial salt. At the end of the day, no one is going to be overly dismayed by one person’s criticism. Criticism, like opinion, is also seldom well-researched, nor is it eloquently proffered either in rhetorical terms or within the ambit of the higher passions. It is far more spontaneous and reactive than is critique proper, and its subject matter is kindred with the baser values to which it itself appears to lend merit. Critique, by contrast, is the result of analysis and interpretation; it is the dialectic which emerges from the dialogue. Not yet in itself fact, of course, for critique works to an agenda within which factuality may be discovered or uncovered as the case may be, critique nevertheless is a paved road to the world as it is, rather than the muddy and overgrown verge of criticism; which at best can call our attention to the lesser fact that some people are unhappy with this or that, and that this may well be a clue to deeper meaningfulness. In a word, critique is the discursive plateau upon which one can observe the essential peaks, however afar they may yet be.
Engaging in critique means both stepping back from the given premises while at once diving beneath them. A simple example: ‘critical race theory’ looks at symptoms, whereas the unheralded and perhaps unknown ‘critical puritanism theory’ might offer deeper insights into a wider panorama of inequities and iniquities both. A recent column in the golf news had it that for the first time in over a third of a century, an amateur golfer won a professional tour event. This is in itself an admirable feat, but we are told, at the opening of the column, that the golfer’s girlfriend flew some thousands of miles to see him play and enjoy a steak dinner while also catching up on some homework, since both are still college students. There is nothing in this at first, but of course, young lovers do not fly to one another simply to eat steak and study. Of course we do not need to know, here and ere on, about the intimacies of athletes as they may be – pace what the tabloids might imagine – but the clue here is that sex is always an ellipsis, for we equally do not need to know about the couple’s repast nor about their study habits. The fact that we are told with some banality about these other activities, quite irrelevant to the essence of a loving union let alone golf, points to the deeper presence of the vanishing absence of any public discourse about sex and sexuality which is not heavily politicized or appearing as part of an underground judged as vulgar, such as pornography. A trivial example, but I think a telling one. What is ubiquitous in our society is not racism or kindred insults, but rather a puritanism born of a neurosis regarding both intimacy of all kinds, and sexual union most specifically. It is the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, the deepest taboo of our time, no different than in Freud’s own. Beyond this, as Freud himself analyzed, the manner in which decoy figures are reported – steak dinners and homework, in this case, but the reader can fill in any blank with almost anything else – presents a second clue for an authentic critique. We are led to believe, somewhat summarily and with no indigestion, that young people are somehow always noble and chaste, chivalrous and honorable in their desire to be close to one another. This too presumes that such virtues only attach themselves to certain kinds of activities, all of which are present to use up the time together which could otherwise have ‘degenerated’ into lust. Finally, that such reportage merits press at all is a testament to what the consumer himself values about his own relations, such as they may be.
Puritanism is propagandized everywhere one looks, but this is not a commentary about cultural neurosis. The analytic edge of critique proper reveals the extant of both ideology and propaganda in our society, its politics, its entertainment and recreation, its education, its culture. Critique seeks the essence of the condition, not merely its symptoms. Race theory, queer theory, gender studies and the like, have more in common with criticism than critique, since they halt their work when they have met with their favored dispositions; be this racism or sexism or what-have-you. It is exceedingly rare for someone loyal to those fields and others, including sometimes the older academic discourses – there are famous analytic differences between G.H. Mead and John Watson, Marx and Spencer, Malinowski and Leach, to name a few examples – to be able to delve more deeply into the abyss of historical meaning and the unconsciousness of norms and customs. Indeed, such thinkers who have done so in all of their efforts are often now shunned, displaced more simply due to their sometimes overweening previous influence rather than for any methodological failures. Academic fashion by itself can never generate critique, only criticism. It is intellectualized opinion only; the irony here is that only the patent enemies of thought in general have recognized this, and from the outside in. Thus another value of critique is that it performs the necessary vivisection of discourse before the lay-person can encounter it and offer their criticisms.
The other chief aspect which distinguishes criticism and critique that does not by itself require an hermeneutic arc is that while the first seeks to insult or aggrieve the criticized in some petty manner, or at best, stops its incipient critique when it has revealed what is symptomatic alone, critique proper produces the work of warning. This result, and the value it places upon it, are the main reasons why it is so seldom engaged in. Critique gets at the very core of our cares, the pith of all that is pitiable, the germ of the germane. It wields a visionary sword but must first cast this weapon in an unforgiving forge. For critique, like thought more generally, nothing is to be considered sacred, nothing taboo. It is usually ill-humored, which is why it is oft mistaken for mere criticism, but unlike its weaker sibling, it is never petty nor rash. Its point is not to preen nor to pretend that the critic has it all over the object of disdain, but rather, and in radical contrast to such reactionary rips, critique indicts all of us in just and equal manner. And though it may provide a glossary of who is most indictable and who the least, this is not its profound point, once again, unlike the critics who focus on race, gender, and like structural variables. Instead, the outcome of critique is not simply a more well-rounded understanding of the human condition, but a veritable call to arms to alter our existence in some essential way, in order to further the humane calling of its object’s noblest values. Critique is not sidetracked by the symptom, not decoyed by the distraction, neither allayed nor assuaged by the ambient and aleatory alliance of critics themselves. Cutting through all of these and many more, critique, in its dialogue and through its dialectic, reaches into the heart of the matter. In turn, we feel that our own hearts have been disembedded from their too-comfortable hearths, and our consciousness now stares disembodied at the world which, in our torpor, in our stupor, once seemed so somnolently sans souci in the face of our blind bidding and dire doing.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.