Paradoxes of criticality

I’ve been thinking some about critical disciplines, probably because I had an opportunity to debate them a little. It must be said, I was in minority, sometimes on my own. I am not entirely certain this is because I was wrong, maybe (and I stress ‘maybe’) it was because I didn’t have much of an agenda.

In the last post I explored potential advantages of ‘critical’. Well, I actually like ‘critical’. Those who know me, know that I love challenging, quarrelling, debating. And, after all, this is precisely the nature of ‘critical’. You get to keep others on their toes, as they test your ideas and your ability to present them. And new ‘critical Xologies’ are created as I write it. Over the last few days I actually read about two. Critical physics, astronomy or geology might be closer than we think!

The problem is that ‘critical’ comes with consequences and a price to pay. Is it to high a price, I don’t know. That’s for all aspiring to be ‘critical’ to decide. I think of the consequences of criticality in terms of paradoxes. The first is that, in contrast to its manifesto, ‘critical Xology’ places itself in a permanent relationship with the non-critical discipline. In my view such a relationship is not particularly useful.  For example, it is confrontational. We, the ‘critical’, are the real McCoy, you, ‘non-criticals’, are misguided conservative, or simply wrong. This is hardly a platform on which to build bridges (and building bridges is good!). This is, rather, a relationship of constant ‘finger-pointing’. You are doing things wrong, you do not reflect…

I also wonder whether it is ‘non-criticals’, like it or not, who set the intellectual agenda which the ‘critical’ ones must follow, respond to, critique and oppose. And there is a crucial question here. Are we doing project A with method Z because it makes sense or because we must be different? Or, better still, are we not doing project B with method Y only because we would be too similar to the ‘enemy’? After all, we must not only be different, but also right!

The second paradox could be labelled as disciplinary navel gazing. Invoking a ‘critical Xology’ focuses on the discipline. The discipline, or its part, is looking very hard at itself or the other part. The disciplinary agenda doesn’t really concern going ‘out there’ and finding out about it (let alone changing it), but concerns the discipline itself. Paradoxically, however, this stance is in my view more conducive to conserving the discipline as it is. In other words, despite the claims to the contrary, I am yet to see (I would be grateful for examples, if someone has them) any positive changes in the ‘non-critical Xology’ engendered by the ‘critical’ one. Moreover, as the challenge is opposed, ‘non-criticals’ feel attacked, their ways are preserved.

The third paradox is, again contrary to what’s intended, that as ‘non-criticals’ rule and control access for example to means of communication, ‘criticals’ will find it difficult to be heard and, in the process, to be effective especially outside the discipline. See the previous point, though. Effectiveness in the ‘real world’ might actually be moot.

And so, my case against ‘criticality’ has been made. However, there are at least two reservations to be made. First, I understand very well the frustrations upon which criticality is founded. Having had a series of articles rejected because they didn’t fit into the mainstream model of the discipline, I know what it means to be furious with ‘non-criticals’. I am also very tired of people ‘defending the discipline’, pointing out that there is only one way to do disciplinary research. After a while this nonsense gets to you. Second, the picture in this and the previews posts is painted with a broad brush. I don’t need to be convinced that there is plenty of nuance to be added. Still, I think, the foundations of the picture and its sketch are sound.

Understanding the above, however, means I understand the need of a group of scholars to form their own club. On balance, I would still call it something else than critical.


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