Inspired by Marx, the critical tradition has animated generations of scholars to pull back the veil of ideology, superstition, culture, power, false consciousness, mass culture, capitalism, and other selected illusions to reveal obscured truths underneath. As Marx wrote in an early letter, the task at hand is the “ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries nor from conflict with the powers that be.[i]” The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, and with it such scholars as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and later Jürgen Habermas, who pioneered the practice of Marxian cultural criticism. The latter part of the century saw the emergence of French structuralist and post-structuralist thought, its early period exemplified by Roland Barthes’ Mythologies**[ii]**, with its analysis of the cultural significance of plastic and advertisements, and its later period by Michel Foucault, who explored among many other things, systems and figures of power embodied in the clinic and the disciplinary apparatus. British cultural studies, as represented by Stuart Hall’s directorship of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, took influence from both Frankfurt School and poststructuralist critique while incorporating feminism and critical race studies into its approach.

In parallel to these developments scholar-activists such as the Situationist International brought the critical gesture into the fabric of everyday life, devising performative interventions in public and institutional spaces. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle exemplifies this style of thought, in which the flow of mass produced images was thought to have totally mediated every aspect of society and the act of détournement, or the antagonistic refiguring and recontextualization of images and objects reifying the capitalist system, was a primary strategy of resistance.

In his essay “Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour critiques the “critical spirit”, asking where a century of such work (including that offered by his field of science studies) has taken us and analyzing the format and character of the critical gesture.[iii] Latour is respectful of the critical tradition, yet ambivalent toward contemporary critique:

I have always fancied that what took great effort, occupied huge rooms, cost a lot of sweat and money, for people like Nietzsche and Benjamin, can be had for nothing, much like the supercomputers of the 1950s, which used to fill large halls and expend a vast amount of electricity and heat, but now are accessible for a dime and no bigger than a fingernail. As the recent advertisement of a Hollywood film proclaimed, “Everything is suspect . . . Everyone is for sale . . . And nothing is what it seems.”[iv]

Latour then takes aim at what he calls the “critical trick:”

When naïve believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naïve believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see… The Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert.[v]

Finally, Latour calls for critique to turn away from a revelatory mode that exposes matters of fact and towards an iterative mode that assembles matters of concern:

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naıve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.[vi]


Notes:


[i] Marx, K. (1992). Early Writings. (R. Livingstone & G. Benton, Trans.). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1843-44). p. 207.
[ii] Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies.
[iii] Latour, B. (2004). Has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry. 30:Winter 2004.
[iv] Ibid. p. 230.
[v] Ibid. p. 239.
[vi] Ibid. p. 246.