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Criticism Without Judgement

Criticism Without Judgement

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Published by Stephen Muecke

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Published by: Stephen Muecke on Mar 27, 2011
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03/27/2011

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[to appear in the
Cultural Studies Review]
Criticism without Judgement
I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that wouldtry not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, asentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch thegrass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam inthe breeze and scatter it. It would multiply notjudgements but signs of existence; it would summonthem, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would inventthem sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticismthat hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like acriticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It wouldnot be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear thelightning of possible storms.
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Michel Foucault, ‘The Masked Philosopher’The multiplication of ‘signs of existence’.
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And their inventionsometimes. What a challenge! Foucault knew very well thatjudgement is practised all the time, that it is ‘one of the simplestthings that mankind has been given to do’, yet his gift to us is adream of some other activity for criticism. He was conscious, as westill are, that the practice of the humanities seminar, wherestudents are trained to become certain kinds of subjects, focusseson the refinement of judgement, including the calibration of moralthresholds, the creation of taste, and the development of an ear fortone. If students graduate from that seminar self-confident enoughto judge what is true and beautiful, the tutor will have done—nodoubt about it—an excellent job.Now, over twenty years later, Bruno Latour comes along with hiscriticism of critique. His ‘tone’ is satirical, and his methodethnographic as he describes what happens in the very graduateschool that delivers the kinds of critical moves needed for judgingtruth and beauty:
Muecke, Draft only. Friday, September 3, 2010
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Enter here, you poor folks. After arduous years of readingturgid prose, you will be always right, you will never betaken in any more; no one, no matter how powerful, will beable to accuse you of naïvité, that supreme sin, any longer?Better equipped than Zeus himself you rule alone, strikingfrom above with the salvo of antifetishism in one hand andthe solid causality of objectivity in the other. The only loseris the naïve believer, the great unwashed, always caught off balance. Is it so surprising, after all, that with such positionsgiven to the object, the humanities have lost the hearts of their fellow citizens, that they had to retreat year after year,entrenching themselves always further in the narrowbarracks left to them by more and more stingy deans? TheZeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over adesert.
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Both French writers owe something to Nietzsche, and indeedAntonin Artaud, in their elaborations of the violence of judgmentand the arrogant righteousness of critique, coupled with a sneeringdisdain for mere facts. The genealogy of critical judgment can alsobe traced to the university model established by Emmanuel Kant inearly modern Europe when certain core values could still be fairlyconfidently asserted.
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Today, that Kantian Christiantranscendentalism is no longer centre stage in a multicultural worldwhere few such core values can be taken for granted, but must benegotiated, even in the micropolitics of the classroom.Rather than continue the criticism of critique directly, I will pursueinstead an experiment with the experimental, an alternative threadin continental philosophy which seeks to provide (hopefully) a morerealistic vision of collective assemblages of life-forms, where thehuman (paradoxically for the humanities) finds itself less centred. Itemerges from its roots in Spinoza, Bergson and Diderot, continuesvia Deleuze and Guattari, then William James and A.N. Whitehead,who have been revived in recent years.What do I mean by ‘experiment’? I define the concept in two ways,
Muecke, Draft only. Friday, September 3, 2010
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firstly by contrasting it to the practice of judgement in the writing of the kind of prose we call criticism. Experimental writing, for me,would be writing that necessarily participates in worlds rather thana writing constituted as a report on realities seen from the otherside of an illusory gap of representation. Judgement is enabled bysuch gaps, and we give them names like ‘critical distance’,‘omniscient overview’, ‘hindsight’ or ‘perspective’.
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Knowing thatforms of judgment are unavoidable, the move to the experimentalattitude involves reflecting on the formation of such criticalsubjectivities. How does critical prose, of the kind that would judge,earn the right to its ‘critical distance’? By what
steps does one getto this position of critique? By contrast, the experimentalalternative is contingent and negotiable and prefers to ask howone earns the right to participate in the event—the seminar,the colloquium, the multidisciplinary research project.It should be clear that the experimental writing I envisage isnot about breaking free of convention, but is actively engagedin creating assemblages or compositions as it goes along. Thisengagement may be with different registers of reality, because‘the world’ is not seen as bifurcated, with the ‘text’ mediatingthe ‘subject’ and the ‘object’, as in older communicationmodels.
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In this multirealist environment, writing cannotelevate the subject to a transcendent/romantic position, wherehuman imagination ‘creates worlds’ so as to redeem a lostplenitude. Because of its constant imbrications orengagements, it seems to make more sense to support it withan immanent/vitalist conceptual architecture. John Rajchman’sposition on Deleuzian philosophy summarises this difference,characterising Deleuze’s radical empiricism as an: ‘…empiricism that tries to push beyond judgment to an invention
Muecke, Draft only. Friday, September 3, 2010
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