Thursday, March 3, 2011

The possibility of critique: location, circulation, style and affect

As a first time participant in the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism, I found the summer workshop on critique and critical theory extremely stimulating and gratifying, mostly because of the rare opportunity it afforded me to join in conversation with South African scholars and intellectuals. I found the sessions rewarding also owing to the process, collegiality, and a very real (affective and intellectual) sense of collective investment in a project of critical exploration. In the context of the constriction of certain sectors of the American university because of the financial crisis, the three days together provided a model of how one does the work of critique, especially how one forms and sustains a critical network (and conversation) about matters of concern. Since my return to the United States resonances of the exchanges, the sustained engagements, insights, and conviviality continue to animate and inform my conversations, teaching, and lectures.

One of the most pressing and enduing themes was our consistent concern with and attention to the conditions of possibility for critique--conditions of location, circulation, style, scenes, effect, and context. Indeed my sense is that we are facing a new set of conditions of possibility for critique and critical theory, one defined as much by the modes of its expression—the essay, the book, the blog, the manifesto and their specific futures as by the circuits of transmission including most especially the digital landscape and the organizing logics that define it.

This theme relates to the transformation, even hollowing out, of the everyday by the logics of branding, self-making, digitality, spectacular and spectacle, and the fake. This condition has put a kind of pressure on the critical, not just to recover the real or reveal hidden logics but to understand how it too, as an object of critique (its own?) has quickly become one more narrative, in a crowed field. Perhaps it is the imbrication of the everyday and the ordinary, the fake as the form in which the real, the critical, the participatory appear (as Ackbar reminds us) that is the ground on which critique can find new traction.

In the global north, (following Anna’s observation that where we speak from has implications), which is where I speak from, the everyday hollowing out of lives, labor, bodies, have themselves become ordinary. Yet, it is with the bodies cast out as disposable in spaces rendered illegible in the global movement of capital and information, that a different kind of critique and production of the marvelous is taking place. One that performs its critical project by using its individual and collective body to trace the contours of evacuation, automation, and displacement with the only tools available—bodies rendered menacing, dangerous, and productive mainly to set the normative boundaries. I returned to the global north convinced that this too is a form of critique, that critique might join in a collaborative conversation (rather than displace or instruct). Such collaboration is a form of the marvelous discovery and practice that might animate critique. For me one of the enduring large themes of the workshop is that critical theory and critique must begin to take account of the conditions, practices, and connection between the ordinary and the everyday, to make sense of the ways in which both are increasingly structured by media and affect. One implication of not grappling with this condition of the production of the critical perhaps is the obduracy of pessimism of critical theory, what a colleague of mine calls the paranoia of critical theory which also stems from a limited horizon of possibility but is also combined with the fundamental suspicion of the media and the conditions of possibility within which critique circulates. This disposition strikes me as in dire need of reconsideration if only to gain the attention of someone other than the choir to which we have become accustomed to preaching. The forms of discovery—the marvelous and the affective forms of critique and imaginations about the possible were also quite resonant for me in our time together and not so much as yet another mode of critique, but as a way of understanding just how much our critical dispositions are as Sara repeatedly insisted, forced into narrow and limited mode of expression. Attention to the importance of the register of the affective as a mode of critique in the moment of spectacular and digital seems like a point of important articulation on many fronts and in many modes of expression.

Herman Gray, UC Santa Cruz