Return of the real, part two: ‘Keeping ’em honest’

che_guevara_tshirtIn yesterday’s post, I argued that critique is a double-edged sword: a necessary aspect of political struggle, but one that, in combination with social atomisation and lack of political agency, deepens our alienation and contributes to a cycle of cynicism and bad faith. How then, do we extricate ourselves from this impasse?

Sloterdijk proposes that ideology critique is the heir to a rich satirical tradition dating back to Diogenes, which he calls kynicism, to differentiate from modern cynicism. Kynicism is a form of critique that ‘goes beyond theoretical repudiation. It does not speak against idealism, it lives against it’. Rather than constructing counter-arguments to Platonic idealism, Diogenes would respond with lewd physicality, smearing faeces and masturbating in public. His answer to Socrates’ definition of humans as ‘featherless bipeds’ was to bring a plucked chicken to the academy and announce it as a man.

It is this ‘lost cheekiness’, Sloterdijk suggests, that is missing in today’s critique. Like kynicism and satire, ideology critique succeeds by unmasking, by stripping away illusions. But in its attempt to be serious, in dispensing with laughter, something vital was lost: ‘it has given up its life as satire, in order to win its position in books as “theory”.’

Perhaps, then, the rumbustious energy of satire can catch the popular imagination in ways that critique, that dry voice in the wilderness of academia, cannot? One cannot help thinking of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, a satirical cable TV news revue. Stewart skewers not only the obvious Republican targets, but also the craven Democrats and their habit of pre-emptively ceding ground to their opponents. Last year, after mounting a quasi-political rally that stretched the boundaries of satire, he gave an unusually serious interview on MSNBC, and discussed his attitude to the media’s role in political life:

Maybe there is a way to not engage in the idea—not to accept the premise…that we are all on the axis of left / right. Maybe there’s a different premise. And I don’t mean that in the way of partisanship, I mean it in the way of—they cover politics, politics is a Democratic and Republican and game. It is left / right. But then you begin to confuse everything [sic] through that same conflict. I think the conflict that would be more appropriate for a news channel, is corruption / non-corruption… [Anderson Cooper]’s got a bit on his show called ‘Keeping em honest’. Which is just so funny to me, because…it’d be like if I had a new segment called ‘Telling jokes to an audience.’ It just felt…like, isn’t that what this whole thing is?

For now, let’s bracket the obvious rejoinders (there is no leftwing party in the money-saturated American political system, the axis runs from centre-right to rabid; he conflates partisan conflict with ideological conflict; a proper critique of corruption is necessarily political). The most significant limitation to Stewart’s position is precisely what gives his show its impact: the act of unmasking. In this respect, it is no different from ideology critique – it’s just funnier.

This is a limitation in two ways. First, while such unmasking can damage the powerful by exposing their hypocrisy, it does not build anything up. In fact, it can itself act as a pressure valve that helps people’s frustrations dissipate. As satirical TV writer Armando Iannuchi put it in an interview on the BBC: ‘Because we have such a strong satirical tradition in the UK, we don’t have one of protest. Which is why, when we see students chucking fire extinguishers around, we’re quite shocked. We throw flour and water and eggs at politicians instead of bricks.’

Second, satire also has a more serious problem that makes it far less radical than critique: it focuses on the folly or knavery of individuals. While there is no shortage of malign and cretinous politicians, to frame the situation in terms of integrity or corruption, by its very apoliticality elides more serious and endemic problems at the level of economy, polity and social relations. But it is hard to imagine political satire that goes beyond sending up hypocrisy, stupidity or pomposity, and still manages to be funny. World-systems analysis doesn’t usually come with a good punchline.

So Sloterdijk’s critique of Critique is devastating, but the kynicism he advocates does not move us forward. Perhaps there is something common to both that is at fault. In a recent debate in Eurozine, Benedict Seymour makes a point about negation in Marxism that could be applied to Sloterdijk’s kynicism, but also (and more significantly) to critical theory in general:

I think one of the key things in Marxism is the emphasis on negativity. You can see how bogus the Stalinist-Communist model is in its tendency to fall back on the bourgeois habit of projecting utopias and then trying to approximate to them. Which, strangely enough, is parallel to the average working life of the exploited proletarian. You must meet the target, you must fulfil the five year plan—always a utopia. I think Marxism is anti-utopian in that respect; we start with what we’ve got and we negate it. Having said that, you can imagine a few basic negations: value, the market, exchange, production for exchange; all of these things are obsolete and a check on human social reproduction. That’s one way of putting it. The world just cannot take much more of this, the environment cannot take more of this; that is again the negative argument.

Seymour approves of this emphasis on negativity, but we need only consider Walter Benjamin’s maxim ‘every fascism is an index of a failed revolution’ to see the problem. Disaffection with the neoliberal mainstream need not draw people to the Left. To make a negative argument without positing a viable alternative is corrosive; just as likely to benefit the far Right, and make their latest venomous cocktail seem more palatable, whatever the toxicity of its ingredients: crude economic populism, scapegoating, conspiracy theory. The critical apparatus is of course vital, but on its own it constitutes a wilfully fractured reason, self-lobotomised and, in its unwillingness to put its own cards on the table, excessively cautious to the point of intellectual cowardice. In the shadow of history, especially after the stagnation and collapse of the Soviet Union, the retreat to critique and the shunning of so-called ‘master narratives’ as inherently oppressive are understandable. But we cannot go on breaking things down forever without building anything of our own. This is Latour’s point:

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 naïve 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.

This emphasis on iconoclasm and critique makes sense only if we put the cart of ideas before the horse of reality. By insisting on the mutual dependence of perception and reality, we have neutered the radicalism of Marx’s ‘the point is not to describe the world, but to change it’. If the world is the way it is because of ideology, it makes sense to concentrate one’s efforts on dismantling the ideology that props the world up: one can change the world by changing the way we think about it. (Marx himself, a committed materialist, would have disapproved of such wishful thinking, unmoored from economics; but the way his and Engels’ The German Ideology demolished the naïve thinking of their peers has a relish and venom that prefigures the efforts of later critical theory; a neat separation of Marx from his followers is not entirely tenable here.) Decades of critical theory later, we have applied a plethora of critiques everywhere we look. We have problematised, subverted, deconstructed and deterritorialised the banal illusions of common sense until we no longer know which way is up; but the reality of power and capital grind on unabated.

One despondent reaction is that our mistake was to underestimate capitalism’s capacity to co-opt everything – to sell Che t-shirts and ‘green’ product lines, to mutate with the circumstances, to depend on the entrepreneurial self-interest of its human agents as an endless supply of ingenuity. But this is merely to buy into the hype. The economic crisis was a reminder that there is nothing infallible in the ‘invisible hand’ that economists like to misquote from Adam Smith. Infinite growth will come a cropper at some point on a finite planet. It is a matter of how, and when. It is hard to exaggerate the stakes of this question: whether the correction to our current ecologically suicidal course occurs by myopic selfishness and the resulting global disaster, or if by action based on collective self-interest, backed up by a healthy respect for facts, we can walk back from the brink.

Latour, Bruno 2004, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2, pp. 225–248
Pehe, Jirí, and Benedict Seymour 2010, ‘The critical divide. Marxism: Radical alternative or totalitarian relic?’, Eurozine.
Sloterdijk, Peter 1987, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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