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The Misadventures of Critical Thinking
I gave to this talk the title: ”The misadventures of critical thinking”. This title requires some
preliminary explanations, especially in the framework of a lecture in Critical Theory. I am
certainly not the first person who suggests that there is something wrong to-day with the
tradition of critical thinking. Many contemporary authors have declared that its time was over.
According to them, there would not be anything left for criticism, since criticism implies the
denunciation of a bright appearance concealing a dark and solid reality, but there would be no
more any solid reality left to oppose to the appearance and no darkness to oppose to the
triumph of affluent society. Such was the melancholic assertion of the late Jean Baudrillard,
that we can find reasserted to-day in a more aggressive way by thinkers like Peter Sloterdijk. I
am not willing to lend my voice to that tune . Instead I would like to restage the case and
suggest that the concepts and procedures that defined the “critical tradition” have not vanished
at all, that they still work, be it in the very discourse of those who make fun of it. Those
concepts and procedures are still at work, but in a way that implies an entire reversal of their
supposed ends and orientations. It is only by taking into account the persistence of this
framework and the reversal of its meaning and function that we can hope to engage in a true
“critique of the critique”.
So I will focus on some contemporary manifestations in the fields of art, theory and
politics that reveal a significant shift in the procedures of presentation and demonstration
which defined the tradition of critical thought .I will borrow my starting point from the art
world by focusing on the evolution of an artistic procedure that was for a long time
emblematic of critical or political art, the procedure of collage. I don’t understand it as a
technical device but as an aesthetic procedure which consists in playing on the clash of
heterogeneous, if not contradictory elements, the model which was the well-known meeting
of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection board. That aesthetics was implemented
in the times of dadaïsm and surrealism, as a means of exploding the “reality” of bourgeois
everyday life and disclosing the deeper reality that it repressed, the reality of dream, desire
and the unconscious. Then it was taken up by Marxist artists, notably under the form of
photomontage, as a means of showing the realities of violence and exploitation which
underpinned the false appearances of peaceful democracy. Among the artists who used it in
that way , Martha Rosler made at the end of the 60’ and the beginning of the 70’s her well-
know series “Bringing war home” by pasting images of the atrocities in Vietnam on images
of American petty-bourgeois interiors. For instance in this collage called Amputee , or in this
other one called “balloons” that organized a clash between the balloons situated near the door
which probably belong to the children of an apparently wealthy family and the bullets that
stroke the dead Vietnamese child carried by his mourning father. The image worked as a
twofold demonstration of causality. The young cripple or the dead child were the truth hidden
by the cosy interior, they were the reality of imperialist violence that allowed for happy
American family life. This revelation of the secret beyond the door was emblematized by
another image in the series, showing a woman opening the curtain on the reality of the
imperialist war. But the other way around, happy American family life was staged as the
cause of the indifference towards the violence of imperialism. The two images had to be
connected in order to produce the connection of two effects: an awareness of the system that
tied together American domestic happiness and imperialist violence, and a feeling of guilt, of
shameful complicity in this system. On the one hand the image said : this is the hidden reality
that you cannot see; you have to be aware of it and behave according to that knowledge. But
there is no evidence that the awareness of a situation bring about the determination to change
it. This is the reason why the image told something more. It said: this is the obvious reality
that you don’t want to see because you know that you are responsible for it. In that way, the
political effect expected from the critical dispositif was a combination of knowledge of the
hidden reality and guilt about the denied reality.
Let us look now at some works of an artist who, in the same way, deals with the
contemporary forms of relation between violence and consumption. Let us look at the
installations made by the German-born and New-York based artist Josephine Meckseper.
Those installations consist in little show cases in which she systematically puts together
things that don’t go together: for instance in this installation called “Selling out” a display of
fashion items and a book on a British group of urban guerilleros who precisely wanted to
bring war against imperialism in our streets and homes; here a communist poster next to a
mannequin for feminine lingerie; or here the well-known slogan of May 68 in France “ Ne
travaillez jamais” “Never work” on bottles of perfume. The structure of the collage is the
same as that of Martha Rosler’s series. The artist puts together things which apparently don’t
go together. But by doing so she wants to show us that those things actually go together, that
they are part of the same process. Now, in the case of Martha Rosler, the collage opened up
on the demonstration of the incompatibility of two worlds : The image of the dead child could
not go with the image of the cosy interior without exploding it. On the contrary, Meckseper’s
collage is predicated on the homogeneity of the elements: the forms of political radicalism
and even the action of the urban guerilleros are staged as a phenomenon of “youth fashion” .
It is no more the conflict which is the truth of the commodity but the commoditisation which
is the truth of the conflict. This reversal could be epitomized by an image , that unfortunately I
could not get. The same artist Josephine Meckseper made several series of photographs of
protests either in Germany or in the United States and notably of the marches against the war
in Afghanistan and in Iraq. One of these photographs shows us protesters holding banners in
the background. As for the foreground it shows an overfilled garbage-can , the content of
which falls to the ground. Once more we are presented with the connection between
imperialist war abroad and domestic consumption. The anti-war protest brings war home, in
its way, but it brings it in a space where it is “at home”, in a space of struggle that is itself a
territory of consumption. Presumably, the cans and packages that overfill the bin have been
thrown there by the protesters. So “bringing war home” does not mean anymore: “being
aware of the remote reality of imperialist war in the heart of American happiness”. It means
the contrary: being aware that the “war” is present here only as a motto on a banner in the
middle of a reality which is the reality of American consumption . And the protest itself
appears to belong to an homogeneous process of consumption of commodities and images
.The marchers protest against the terrorism of the war on terror waged by the empire of
consumption that throws its shells on Mid-eastern towns. Those shells are a response to the
terror of the attack of the towers; that attack itself had been displayed as the spectacle of the
collapse of the empire of consumption and spectacle. As for the protesters, they have
consumed the images of the collapse of the towers and the images of the strikes in Iraq; and
what they offer on the streets is a spectacle too. Ultimately terrorism and consumption, protest
and spectacle are boiled down to the same process, a process governed by the law of the
commodity which is the law of equivalence.
At first sight we might draw the conclusion that the logic of the critical dispositif has
been entirely self-cancelled: there is no hidden reality to unveil, no feeling of guilt to arouse.
But if it were so, why keep a dispositif that has no more relevance? This is why I assume that
the dispositif itself still works. There may be no hidden reality behind the curtain. But the
logic of the critical model can perfectly do without it. It is enough that there be something that
we cannot see or don’t want to see. And the very absence of another reality can become the
thing that we are unable or unwilling to see. As the commentators warn us , Meckseper’s
images both “ mirror the nihilist horror of middle class lifestyle “ and “ examine the
phenomenon of radicalism as youth fashion”. So her images say: this is the way our world is
and this is the way in which we try to ignore that our forms of protest contribute to this world
of consumerism and spectacle. The mechanism of the critical procedure has not been
cancelled. Instead it has been overturned. The collision of the heterogeneous series of images
is still given a power of pointing out an ignored reality which also means a denied complicity.
It is still a matter of making what is “ignored” known. And it is still a matter of targeting the
point where the two forms of ignorance – the incapacity to understand and the desire to
ignore- are brought back to the same excess, the same overflow of commodities and images .
The power of the critical dispositif predicated on a basic assumption: we act improperly
because we don’t see properly. This is why the critical thinker or the critical artist has to stop
the images, to produce “one image more” that confronts two different images in order to
reveal the logic of their connection . In the old fashion, illustrated by Rosler’s collage , the
confrontation brought about the perception of the reality of the empire of the commodities
behind the display of the images .In the new fashion, illustrated by Mecksepers’s one , there
is no reality behind. The display of images is the same thing as the structure of a reality where
everything is displayed in the way of the commodities. But it is still a question of producing
the clash of images which stops and congeals the overflow of images in order to show us that
even the denunciation of the images in the name of the reality is in tune with the flow of
images into which the law of the commodity has entirely turned our “real” world. Needless
to say, this clash of images appears to belong itself to the same process. The installation
which takes on the form of a shop window in order to demonstrate the equivalence between
the display of commodities and the forms of anti-capitalist protest makes no bones about
presenting itself as a luxury commodity .
So there is a dialectic inherent in the denunciation of the critical paradigm> It declares
that it has become obsolete. But the form of the denunciation reproduces its mechanism. It
simply turns the ignorance of reality or denial of misery into the ignorance of the fact that
reality and misery have disappeared. It turns the desire to ignore what makes us guilty into the
desire to ignore that there is no reason to be guilty. Such is the argument pursued by Peter
Sloterdijk throughout his book entitled Foams . What defines modernity, according to him , is
the joint vanishing of poverty and reality. He describes the process of modernity , in its more
general feature, as a process of “anti-gravitation”. “Anti-gravitation” first refers to the
technical inventions that allow men to conquer space and fly in the air. But, in a more general
way, it refers to the way in which life would have lost much of its “gravity” – which means
both its weight of poverty, pain or toughness and its weight of reality. According to him, we
experience exactly the contrary of what the Marxist schema set up: instead of projecting into
an ideal sky the inverted reality of their earthly misery, our contemporaries would project
into an illusory solid reality the inverted image of that process of escape. As he puts it : they
would “re-translate the luxury that holds power in the language of misery”. So there would
be a total discrepancy between the effectiveness of the “lightened” world and the old
discourse of poverty and victimism that still takes the floor . Our “affluent society” would be
definitely released from what he calls “the definitions of reality formulated by the ontology of
poverty” and yet we would still hang on to those formulas, we would still phrase the lack of
misery and the lack of gravity in the language of misery and gravity.
Such an analysis sounds as an appeal to get free from the forms and contents of the
critical tradition. And yet it is not difficult to perceive that the denunciation is still enclosed
in the circle of that tradition . Once more we are told that there is a structure of illusion which
is the result of the ignorance of- and resistance to - a global process of development of the
productive forces. This global process is represented as a process of de-materialisation of
wealth, which brings about a loss of weight of the old beliefs and ideals. We easily recognize
in those assertions the indestructible logic of the Communist Manifesto . It is no coincidence
that the so-called post-modern turn had to borrow from it its motto “All that is solid melts into
the air”. We are told that everything becomes fluid, liquid, gaseous, etc. And the ideologists
of course are said to ignore or deny that “fluidification “of everything as they still believe in
the reality of reality, poverty and wars.
Ironic as they purport to be, those statements are still in keeping with the premises of
the “critical” tradition. They are still in keeping with the presupposition of a global process
which produces a mechanism of ideological inversion that turns reality into illusion or illusion
into reality, poverty into wealth or wealth into poverty, etc. They still denounce an “ignorance
“of the global process which entails both a lack of knowledge and a will to deny. And they
still point out a feeling of guilt at the core of the denial. So the criticism of the critical
tradition still puts into plays its categories and procedures. The only difference is the
following: the critical procedures were supposed to be means of arousing awareness and
energies for a process of emancipation. Now either they are disconnected from that horizon of
emancipation. Or they are overturned. They become tools against any process or even any
dream of emancipation- a mechanism that could be emblematized by this work of Charles
Ray called “Revolution Counter-Revolution “ because the mechanism of the merry-go-round
is disjointed from that of the horses so that they go into opposite directions.
This is , in my view, the true lesson of the fable of the protesters and the
garbage-can . This is ultimately the “little difference” separating Martha Rosler’ collages from
Josephine Meckseper’s collages. After all, in the 1960’s Jean-Luc Godard already made fun
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