The Work of Warning

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.

Mein Banff

Mein Banff: on Environmental Fascism

            While we generally shun the conception of a specifically human purity post-Nuremberg, and rightly so, we continue to indulge it many other aspects of contemporary life, from pet-breeders to horse-racers to hygienic and cleaning products to the idea of nature itself. Given that the Third Reich made purity its ideal in all things, it might serve us well to take a brief critical look at how we have duplicated this sensibility. Indeed, it may be too rapid a validation of our present-day ethics to completely absolve ourselves of even the most dangerous application of the concept, that to human beings, given the rise of a great diversity of nationalist and sectarian movements around the globe. Anything ‘orthodox’, anything ‘indigenous’, anything gnostic or centered upon a too-specific way of life whether identified with one’s ethnic enclave or one’s religious faith or yet one’s network or neighborhood, is at risk for sliding with rabid ritualism into the slough of ‘the pure’.

            One may well wonder if the fetishization of nature associated with the environmentalist movement is both a decoy from, and a substitute for, the indictment against the craving of such purities within humanity itself. The arresting of climate change and thus the salvation of nature as we have known it is touted as a sensibility that all sane persons would accept. This alone is suggestive of a kind of fascism; if you do not agree with us, you must be nuts. And nature cannot be left to its own designs given our encroachments, though national park systems are a nice touch, and most people who can afford to actually visit them leave with some sense of awe; nature is truly a radically alien thing and it has not only nothing to do with us it also has, yet more astonishingly to our parochial vanities, utterly no human interest. So how is it that we humans have latched onto what is, more objectively speaking, something that gives us life as a species but otherwise contradicts everything about that life’s aspirations to become other than nature?

            Let me put this another way: the mutability of ‘human nature’, the very existence of history rather than mere instinct, is testament not to our connection with cosmic evolution but to the authentic difference that exists between what is natural and what is cultural. And we are nothing but the latter through and through; our global conflict of viewpoints and worldviews alike is but evidence for this. For if humanity had any nature in it at all, we would be far more likely to agree on fundamental things which we would then take as self-defining. Indeed, we would not be able to disagree, for instinct, the driving impetus amongst all ‘lower’ forms of life, is of a singular and unthinking force. Contrary to this, there is no singular ‘human nature’.

            The attempt to frame the wider alien nature as if it had some authentic connection with us – we are destroying ourselves when we destroy nature; this is only a partial truth at best given that culture is itself about the construction of a ‘second nature’ and the prime manner of distinguishing ourselves from it – is a misguided and ethically incorrect misunderstanding of both evolution and creation alike. Whether one is a modernist or a traditionalist – and the environmental movement hosts many of both – nature is placed on a pedestal that – if one is a traditionalist, manifests itself as the truer temple of God; or, if one is a modernist, nature is the replacement for that same God – takes on the air of purity as over against the raging impurities of humanity. Nature as purity is raped, molested, assaulted, conquered, vanquished, and humanity as impurity is the criminal actor in all of these landscapes. Seen in this way, the oddly diverse allies of nature as are found within the environmental movement can reassure themselves about their own very human anxieties. The person who aids nature is righting an historical, even an existential, wrong, while the one who does not is denying their own birthright. This sounds distressingly close to the sensibility which governed discourse about the ‘pure race’ and its duty to the wider species. The superior race was to be a role model against the miscreants of miscegenation. It held within its crucible the elements of a future humanity, bereft of all impurities as manifest in genetic faults and mental aberrations. In a word, all truly sane persons would aspire to such a future.

            If you are someone who either ignores the call to arms regarding climate and biosphere or denies its necessity, by the logic of the environmental movement you are as were the degenerates sabotaging the Reich’s attempts to improve the race and alter the history of the world. Your projects are as was degenerate art, ‘Entarteite Kunst’, and your criminality is not even fit to run the death camps which themselves were meant to cleanse us of all impurities and imperfections; to promote the true ‘nature’ of Man. The environmental state seeks to alter our shared humanity in a regressive manner in that it imagines the ‘natural man’ is one who shares with nature its own life instinct. Is it not enough that we have extinguished much of the panoply of nature’s power to enhance our own? Do we now, at the bidding of those who claim to save nature – surely but another fascist allegory; environmentalism is the belated soteriology of an otherwise atheist humanity – force ourselves to shrug off the very things that make us most human? Reason, language, art, love, none of which nature possesses, in exchange for a contrivance of Gauguin-like ‘instinct’ and Rousseauistic romance, perhaps spiced up with some Sadean symbolism and Herodian heroics when push comes to shove, as it surely must.

            Just as with those who love animals more than their fellow humans, those who love nature are, with great irony, turning their backs upon their own essential humanity, which has nothing at all to do with either purity or nature. If you are wondering about the wisdom of promoting the purity of nature Über Alles, wonder no longer. It is simply the revenge of a ‘Reich’, or state of mind that desires escape from its own limited imagination and seeks solace from both the history and reality of our shared, but conflicting, human condition.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty book in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

Gandalf Hitler: on the Fascism of Fantasy

           “The will to pleasure and the will to death also live with one another, even within one another. Is one only angelic and the other only demonic? Hardly so. Pleasure induces a great suffering, second only to that of love, and death could well be its merciful release. She is an angel, yes, but angels too have needs. They are not exactly human but all this presents to me is a challenge.” (from Loewen 2020c).

                A cursory view of the fantasy genre suggests a puzzle which might engender a quest of its own: which is more phantasmagorical: The reality from which we desire escape or that which we use as an escape? On the one hand, the novels, the cycles, the screenplays, the scripts; on the other, and adding to their simultaneous simulacra, the actors, the directors, the producers, the publishers. Akin to Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, fantasy as entertainment and escape present to society a massive decoy game which outlasts political regimes and the ebb and flow of wealth. Yet this kind of fantasy is not ancient in the manner in which religion, for instance, is understood. We moderns have replaced deistic religion with that civil, but the State remains all too real, in spite of its presentation of self as our guardian angel. So the enchanted element of religious belief, its sheer demand for a faith rather than for a proof – there can be no ‘proving’ magic, as it were – is left to the culture industry.

            The very phrase is a contradiction in terms. Not only by virtue of modern redefinitions of what constitutes ‘production’ – something that generates capital directly; and yet how can a Tolkien or a Rowling not be seen as producers of impressive capital? – but as well by equally contemporary aesthetic standards; culture as Kultur or Kunst cannot be ‘produced’ in this way. Art either transcends the mundanity of productive history or it presents itself as an horizontal egress from it. The one is sometimes still referred to as ‘serious art’ and the other correspondingly ‘popular’. Fantasy writing etc. occupies the latter, and hence – or is it thence? – so does fantasy itself.

            With approximately 55% female readership, fantasy writing nevertheless has been historically written mostly by men (though one study states that in the first quarter of 2019 female authors accounted for about 60% of the more current publications). Of the women writers covering the last fifty years or so, bracketing possible pseuodonymy either way, about 80% of publications etc. which contain female leads have as their plot a romance centering around that heroine who is from the beginning already fully equipped for the task at hand but has been unfairly denied the opportunity to press on with the necessary quest. She may have been betrayed by her mentor (Sarah Maas’s eight volume cycle is likely the most known example), or she is absented from an important male who actually turns out to be the rightful heir dispossessed (Crusader Kings 3 and other such digital media), or her love interest is driven by the desire to wield power from behind the scenes (Game of Thrones). The ‘Lady Macbeth’ trope dies hard, and that amongst women who should know better.

            Even where ‘enchantment’ in the purely phantasmagorical sense is irrelevant, the fantasy itself continues apace. In the recent Millie Bobbi Brown affair ‘Enola Holmes’, the teenage heroine is again a displaced genius with all of the skills of an unlikely Ninja but with none of the opportunity. Yet the already famed Holmes brothers’ much younger sister, in spite of her tactical heroics, ultimately favors the conservative path of lesser resistance, in disregard of her mother and mentor being a political radical. What the heroine does resist is love, for it is, though authentic, apparently too paternalistically in the way of her chosen vocation. She tells the camera that her name spelled backwards is, after all, ‘alone’, and thus she follows in Sherlock’s footfalls, alone and aloof if not entirely inhumane. The message for youth, especially for young women, is to simply get your due piece of the action as it is, and not to alter anything structural about the system of belief or of production as it is. The unreality of the heroine’s skill set is only matched by that of the plot – there is a moment where she could have, given her martial arts abilities, simply thrown Lestrade out of a third story window and thereby taken her cause into the authentically political; another wherein she is slapped in the face by her oncoming finishing school governess and then cowers before her instead of snapping her neck, and so on – which hurtles along its ludicrous path while purporting to inspire young people to ‘become who they are’. The individuated sense of heroism overtakes the social reforms that occur through her saving of the rightful male (again), a young lord whose vote facilitates a progressive bill for the era, and this in a currently neo-fascist UK that remains nostalgic for empire and tirelessly promotes its historical literature, both serious and popular, as part of its equally tired civil religion. Where female youth continue to attend schools in pleats and where corporal punishment in the home has yet to be outlawed. One is tempted to reply to the Russian minister of defense when he commented that the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II was ‘simply a large target’, that England itself is in fact a much larger one. The fantasy of Britannia as the ocean-ruling-sword-wielding Atlantis is also ‘simply’ the expensive version of Hogwarts. It is furthermore a masculine fantasy that itself wields the topless pale nymph upon its nautical escutcheon as a kind of ironic talisman. Fittingly, we do not see even a hint of Ms. Brown’s cleavage let alone the other, setting the tone for a church-mouse chastity that reminds one of a Victorian Emma Peel. Dame Diana Rigg, herself schooled in a harsh religious institution which she later felt ‘built her character’, resigned from the projected panache of sexualized violence of ‘The Avengers’ after only two seasons. No doubt the role clashed with her own sensible sensibilities which are after all, also Britain’s very own. Male viewers of the time were nevertheless transfixed.

                Male readers of fantasy as revealed by social media studies complain that fantasy heroines are ‘too perfect’ and ‘unrealistic’, though it should be immediately noted that there is no such concern if the leads are male (‘The Witcher’, for example). But patent sexism aside for the moment, the vast majority of fantasy heroines are indeed portrayed as if they were members of some occluded suffragette movement with the quest to take back the prematurely gifted grail of ‘just give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job’. In fact, in the scripts at least, they are already well in possession of the tools. What they lack, so we are told, is the job, any job.

            In spite of the compelling necessity to exeunt from the penury of wage-slavery as well as from the equal pressures of familial piety, consumers of fantasy, no matter the media of presentation, succumb to narratives which only reinforce the very systems from which they seek relief. And within competing brands of fantasy there is also to be found the fraudulent Sturm und Drang of male heroes who exude a toxic masculinity (James Patterson’s ‘Harry Bosch’ must be the recent paragon of this vile type, to stick within the detective genre for a moment; a ‘man’ who threatens to assault his handsome adolescent daughter, perhaps in lieu of having actual sex with her) as if to provide a bellicose balance to the heroines who in their turn exhibit a strangely disloyal selfishness. The customary sensibility that women should be automatically altruistic and engage in self-sacrifice is at first subverted. These ready-made legends carry all before them but even so, their entire redemptive purpose is to restore the male to his rightful place. This too is a tired real-world fantasy that many women have found, with experience, to be both unworthy of whatever skills they do in fact possess, but also, in these days of dishonor and unchivalry, with most men, quite impossible.

            The other 20% of female-authored fantasies which also have female leads are, however, much more realistic. Here we find the young women ill-prepared for the task at hand, unknowing of either the goal of the quest or of the skills necessary to undertake it. This is the model I use in my own epic, by the way. These superior plots recognize that the phase of any quest which is at least of equal importance to the epic action is the learning curve itself, taken on without promise and sometimes even without premise, for the mystery only gradually unfolds before her as she becomes more of an initiate into the other world. Indeed, there is much less fantasy overall in such texts and thus, correspondingly, much more reality, the kind within which persons are faced with in the day to day. Rather than abruptly excerpting the consumer from their sordid mundanity, they impress upon the reader the necessity of self-understanding, which is a form of love, and which as well can only arrive at some kind of authenticity from within the call of conscience. What inhibits this human process is precisely the fascist fantasy we make daily of social reality as it stands, and which has a far greater consumption rate than do even the most famous fantasy cycles or series. Almost all of us consume it, and any escape therefrom – given that it mostly occurs not by virtue of virtuous wizardry but rather through a doubled-over expanse of distracting entertainment ‘events’, from sports to politics to parenting and ‘even’ to education, voluntarism and worship, all hard-ruled by fascist forms and norms whose goal is control Über Alles, and that together seek to define what the human being is and thus what we are capable of being – is had at the cost of changing that world which is at present our own into one more humane in both its scope and meaning.

            My sense of a true heroine who learns to love herself outside of the objectification of ordered obsolescence (James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’), outside of the glare of glamorous Glasglocke (Plath’s self-portrait), and eschewing the too-educated senses of an Austen or a Bronte, the duet of female fantasists of the preceding age, is one who first overturns filial piety, through parricide if necessary, then overtakes the lead male and cuts him down from behind, unexpectedly, ruthlessly, but also with pleasure, the undressed redress of all ‘discipline’ that has been suffered upon young women as the theatre of surrogate sex. My invocation of the true heroine of the nearest future is an orison not to the beyond but to the coming birthright of the days of decision, wherein humanity as a whole will be forced to confront the effects of its own self-made cause. For

                “The unpolished edge of futurity will draw our collective blood. If it must be spilled, then let the one who holds the sword be a visionary and not a reactionary. Let her raven eyes be the windows of our collective soul. Let her joyous judgement be the compassion of our call to conscience. Let her unknowing be but innocence and never ignorance. Let her knowing become the working wisdom of light before heat”. (from Loewen 2020c).

                Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.