Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. To appear in Critical Inquiry



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My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart. The parenthesis that we can call the "modern parenthesis" during which we had, on the one hand, a world of objects, Gegenstand, out there, unconcerned by any sort of parliaments, forums, agoras, congresses, courts and, on the other, a whole set of forums, meeting places, town halls where people debated, has come to a close. What the etymology of the word thing, chose, causa, res, aitia, had conserved for us mysteriously as a sort of fabulous and mythical past has now become, for all to see, our most ordinary present. Things are gathered again. Was it not extraordinarily moving to see, for instance, in the lower Manhattan reconstruction project, the long crowds, the angry messages, the passionate emails, the huge agoras, the long editorials that connected so many people to so many variations of the project to replace the Twin Towers? As the architect Daniel Libeskind said a few days before the decision, "Building will never be the same".
I could open the newspaper and unfold the number of former objects that have become things again, from the global warming case I mentioned earlier to the hormonal treatment of menopause, to the work of Tim Lenoir, the primate studies of Linda Fedigan and Shirley Strum, or the hyenas of my friend Steven Glickman.16
Nor are those gatherings limited to the present period as if only recently objects had become so obviously things. Every day historians of science help us realize to what extent we have never been modern because they keep revising every single element of past matters of fact from Mario Biagioli's Galileo, Steven Shapin's Boyle, and Simon Schaffer's Newton, to the incredibly intricate linkages between Einstein and Poincaré that Peter Galison has narrated in his latest masterpiece.17 Many others of course could be cited, but the crucial point for me now is that what allowed historians, philosophers, humanists, and critics to trace the difference between modern and premodern, namely, the sudden and somewhat miraculous appearance of matters of fact, is now thrown into doubt with the merging of matters of fact into highly complex, historically situated, richly diverse matters of concern. You can do one sort of thing with mugs, jugs, rocks, swans, cats, mats but not with Einstein's Patent Bureau electric coordination of clocks in Bern. Things that gather cannot be thrown at you like objects.
And, yet, I know full well that this is not enough because, no matter what we do, when we try to reconnect scientific objects with their aura, their crown, their web of associations, when we accompany them back to their gathering, we always appear to weaken them, not to strengthen their claim to reality. I know, I know, we are acting with the best intentions in the world, we want to add reality to scientific objects, but, inevitably, through a sort of tragic bias, we seem always to be subtracting some bit from it. Like a clumsy waiter setting plates on a slanted table, every nice dish slides down and crashes on the ground. Why can we never educe the same stubbornness, the same solid realism by bringing the obviously webby, "thingy" qualities of matters of concern? Why can't we ever counteract the claim of realists that only a fare of matters of facts can satisfy their appetite and that matters of concern are much like nouvelle cuisine—nice to look at but not fit for voracious stomachs.
One reason is of course the position objects have been given in most social sciences, positions that are so ridiculously useless that if they are employed, even in a small way, for dealing with science, technology, religion, law, or literature, they will make any serious consideration of objectivity absolutely impossible—I mean of "thinginess." Why is this so? Let me try to portray the critical landscape in its ordinary and routine state.18
We can summarize, I estimate, 90 percent of the contemporary critical scene by the following series of diagrams which fixate the object at only two positions, what I have called the fact position and the fairy position—fact and fairy are etymologically related but I won't develop this point here. The fairy position is very well known and is used over and over again by many social scientists who associate criticism with antifetishism. The role of the critic is then to show that what the naïve believers are doing with objects is simply a projection of their wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself. Here they have diverted to their petty use the prophetic fulmination against idols "they have mouths and speak not, they have ears and hear not," but they use this prophecy to decry the very objects of belief—gods, fashion, poetry, sport, desire, you name it—to which naïve believers cling with so much intensity.19 And then the courageous critic, who alone remains aware and attentive, who never sleeps, turns those false objects into fetishes which are supposed to be nothing but mere empty white screens on which is projected the power of society, domination, whatever. The naïve believer has received a first salvo (fig. 2)

.

But, wait, a second salvo is in the offing, and this time it comes from the fact pole. This time it is the poor bloke, again taken aback, whose behavior is now "explained" by the powerful effects of indisputable matters of fact: "You, ordinary fetishists, believe you are free but, in reality, you are acted on by forces you are not consciouss of. Look at them, look, you blind idiot" (and here you insert whichever pet facts the social scientists fancy to work with, taking them from economic infrastructure, fields of discourse, social domination, race, class, and gender, maybe throwing some neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, whatever, provided they act as indisputable facts whose origin, fabrication, mode of development are left unexamined) (fig. 3).


Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind? Why critique, this most ambiguous pharmakon, has become such a potent euphoric drug? You are always right! 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. Isn't this fabulous? Isn't this really worth going to graduate school to study critique? "Enter here, you poor folks. After arduous years of reading turgid prose, you will be always right, you will never be taken in any more; no one, no matter how powerful, will be able to accuse you of naïveté, that supreme sin, any longer? Better equipped than Zeus himself you rule alone from above with the striking salvo of antifetishism in one hand and the solid causality of objectivity in the other." The only loser is the naïve believer, the great unwashed, always taken on the wrong foot (fig. 4).



Is it so surprising, after all, that with such positions given 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 narrow barracks left to them by more and more stingy deans? The Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but on a desert.


One thing is clear, no one of us readers would like to see our own most cherished objects treated in this way. We would recoil in horror at the mere suggestion of having them "socially explained," whether we deal in poetry or robots, stem cells, blacks holes, or impressionism, whether we are patriots, revolutionaries or lawyers, whether we pray to God or put our hope in neuroscience. This is why, in my opinion, those of us who tried to portray sciences as matters of concern so often failed to convince: readers have confused the treatment we give of the former matters of fact with the terrible fate of objects processed through the hands of sociology, cultural studies, and so on. And I can't blame our readers. What social scientists do to our favorite objects is so horrific that certainly we don't want them to come any nearer. "Please," we exclaim, "don't touch them at all! Don't try to explain them!" Or we might suggest more politely: "Why don't you go further down the corridor to this other department? They have bad facts to account for; why don't you explain away those ones instead of ours?" And this is the reason why, when we want respect, solidity, obstinacy, robustness, we all prefer to stick to the language of matters of fact no matter its well-known defects.

And yet this is not the only way because the cruel treatment objects undergo in the hands of what I'd like to call critical barbarity is rather easy to undo. If the critical barbarian appears so powerful, it is because the two mechanisms I have just sketched are never put together in one single diagram (fig. 5). Antifetishists debunk objects they don't believe in by showing the productive and projective forces of people; then, without ever making the connection, they use objects they do believe in to resort to the causalist or mechanist explanation and debunk conscious capacities of people whose behavior they don't approve of. The whole rather poor trick that allows critique to go on, although we would never confine our own valuables to their sordid pawnshop, is that there is never any crossover between the two lists of objects in the fact position and the fairy position. This is why you can be at once and without even sensing any contradiction 1) an antifetishist for everything you don't believe in—most of the time religion, popular culture, art, politics, and so on; 2) an unrepentant positivist for all the sciences you believe in—sociology, economics, conspiracy theory, genetics, evolutionary psychology, semiotics, just pick your preferred field of study; and 3) a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish—and of course it might be criticism itself, but also painting, bird-watching, Shakespeare, baboons, proteins, and so on.


If you think I am exaggerating in my somewhat dismal portrayal of the critical landscape, it is because we have had in effect almost no occasion so far to detect the total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires—antifetishism, positivism, realism—because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics. We explain the objects we don't approve of by treating them as fetishes; we account for behaviors we don't like by discipline whose makeup we don't examine; and we concentrate our passionate interest on only those things that are for us worthwhile matters of concern. But of course such a cavalier attitude with such contradictory repertoires is not possible for those of us, in science studies, who have to deal with states of affairs which fit neither in the list of plausible fetishes—because everyone, including us, does believe very strongly in them—nor in the list of undisputable facts, because we are witnessing their birth, their slow construction, their fascinating emergence as matters of concern. The metaphor of the Copernican revolution, so tied to the destiny of critique, has always been for us, science students, simply moot. This is why, with more than a good dose of field chauvinism, I consider this tiny field so important: it is the little rock in the shoe that might render the routine patrol of the critical barbarians more and more painful.
The mistake would be to believe that we too have given a social explanation of scientific facts. No, even though it is true that we have at first tried, like good critics trained in the good schools, to use the armaments handed to us by our betters and elders to "crack open"—one of their favorite expressions, meaning to destroy—religion, power, discourse, hegemony. But, fortunately (yes fortunately!), one after the other, we witnessed that the black-boxes of science remained closed and that it was rather the tools that laid in the dust of our workshop, disjointed and broken. Put simply, critique was useless against objects of some solidity. You can try the miserable projective game on UFOs or exotic divinities, but don't try it on neurotransmitters, on gravitation, on Monte Carlo calculations. But critique is also useless when it begins to use the results of one science uncritically, be it sociology itself, or economics, or postimperialism, to account for the behavior of people. You can try to play this miserable game of explaining aggression by invoking the genetic makeup of violent people, but try to do that while dragging, at the same time, the many controversies in genetics, evolutionary theories in which geneticists find themselves so thoroughly embroiled.20
On both accounts, matters of concern never occupy the two positions left for them by critical barbarity. Objects are much too strong to be treated as fetishes and much too weak to be treated as undisputable causal explanations of some unconscious action. And this is not true of scientific states of affairs only; this is our great discovery, what made science studies commit such a felicitous mistake, such a Felix culpa. Once you realize that scientific objects cannot be socially explained, then you realize too that the so-called weak objects, those that appear to be candidates for the accusation of antifetishism, were never mere projections on an empty screen either.21 They too act, they too do things, they too make you do things. It is not only the objects of science that resist, but all the others as well, those who were supposed to have been ground to dust by the powerful teeth of automated reflex-action deconstructors. To accuse something of being a fetish is the ultimate gratuitous, disrespectful, insane, and barbarian gesture.22
Is it not time for some progress? To the fact position, to the fairy position, why not add a third position, a fair position? Is it really asking too much from our collective intellectual life to devise, at least once a century, some new critical tools? Would we not be thoroughly humiliated to see that military personnel are more alert, more vigilant, more innovative than us, the pride of academia, the crème de la crème, who go on ceaselessly transforming the whole rest of the world into naïve believers, into fetishists, into hapless victims of domination, while at the same time turning them into the mere superficial consequences of powerful hidden causalities coming from infrastructures whose makeup is never interrogated? All the while being intimately certain that the things really close to our hearts would in no way fit any of those roles. Are you not all tired of those "explanations"? I am, I have always been, when I know, for instance, that the God to whom I pray, the works of art I cherish, the colon cancer I have been fighting, the piece of law I am studying, the desire I feel, indeed, the very book I am writing could in no way be accounted for by fetish or fact, nor by any combination of those two absurd positions?
[break]
The problem is that to retrieve a realist attitude, it is not enough to dismantle the critical landscape so uncritically built up by our predecessors like we would obsolete but still dangerous atomic silos. If we had to dismantle social theory only, it would be a rather simple affair—like the Soviet empire, those big totalities have feet of clay. But the difficulty lies in the fact that it is built on top of a much older philosophy, so that whenever we try to replace matters of fact by matters of concern, we seem to lose something along the way. It is like trying to fill the mythical Danaid's barrel—no matter what we put in it, the level of realism never increases. As long as we have not sealed the leaks, the realist attitude will always be split; matters of fact take the best part, and matters of concern are limited to a rich but essentially void or irrelevant history. More will always seem less. Although I wish to keep this paper short, I need to take a few more pages to deal with ways to overcome this bifurcation.
Alfred North Whitehead famously said "the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into a powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena."23 I cannot avoid getting into it because I have talked so much about weapon systems, explosion, iconoclasm, and arenas. Of all the modern philosophers who tried to overcome matters of fact, Whitehead is the only one who, instead of taking the path of critique and directing his attention away from facts to what makes them possible as Kant did; or adding something to their bare bones as Husserl did; or avoiding the fate of their domination, their Gestell, as much as possible as Heidegger did; tried to get closer to them or, more exactly, to see through them the reality that requested a new respectful realist attitude. No one is less a critic than Whitehead, in all the meanings of the word, and it's amusing to notice that the only pique he ever directed against someone else was against the other W., the one considered, wrongly in my view, as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, not W. as in Bush but W. as in Wittgenstein.
What set Whitehead completely apart and straight on our path is that he considered matters of fact to be a very poor rendering of what is given in experience and something that muddles entirely the question What is there? with the question How do we know it? as Isabelle Stengers has shown recently in a major book about Whitehead's philosophy.24 Those who now mock his philosophy don't understand that they have resigned themselves to what he called the "bifurcation of nature." They have entirely forgotten what it would require if we were to take this incredible sentence seriously: "For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick up and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon" (CN, pp. 28–29).
All subsequent philosophies have done exactly the opposite: they have picked and chosen and, worse, they have remained content with that limited choice. The solution to this bifurcation is not, as phenomenologists would have it, adding to the boring electric waves the rich lived world of the glowing sun. This would be simply make the bifurcation greater. The solution, or rather the adventure, according to Whitehead, is to dig much further into the realist attitude and to realize that matters of fact is a totally implausible, unrealistic, unjustified definition of what it is to deal with things:
Thus matter represents the refusal to think away spatial and temporal characteristics and to arrive at the bare concept of an individual entity. It is this refusal which has caused the muddle of importing the mere procedure of thought into the fact of nature. The entity, bared of all characteristics except those of space and time, has acquired a physical status as the ultimate texture of nature; so that the course of nature is conceived as being merely the fortunes of matter in its adventure through space. [CN, p. 20]
It is not the case that there would exist solid matters of fact and that the next step would be for us to decide whether they will be used to explain something. It is not the case either that the other solution is to attack, criticize, expose, historicize those matters of fact, to show that they are made up, interpreted, flexible. It is not the case that we should rather flee out of them into the mind or add to them symbolic or cultural dimensions; the question is that matters of fact are a poor proxy of experience and of experimentation, and, I would add, a confusing bundle of polemics, of epistemology, of modernist politics that can in no way claim to represent what is requested by a realist attitude.25
Whitehead is not an author known for keeping the reader wide awake, but I want to indicate at least the direction of the new critical attitude with which I wish to replace the tired routines of most social theories.
The solution lies, it seems to me, in this promising word gathering that Heidegger had introduced to account for the "thingness of the thing." Now, I know very well that Heidegger and Whitehead would have nothing to say to one another, and yet, the word the latter used in Process and Reality to describe "actual occasions," his word for my matters of concern, is the word societies. It is also, by the way, the word used by Gabriel Tarde, the real founder of French sociology, to describe all sorts of entities. It is close enough to the word association I have used all along to describe the objects of science and technology. Andrew Pickering would use the words "mangle of practice."26 Whatever the words, what is presented here is an entirely different attitude than the critical one, not a flight into the conditions of possibility of a given matter of fact, not the addition of something more human that the inhumane matters of fact would have missed, but, rather, a multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence. Objects are simply a gathering that has failed—a fact that has not been assembled according to due process.27 The stubbornness of matters of fact in the usual scenography of the rock-kicking objector—"It is there whether you like it or not"—is much like the stubbornness of political demonstrators: "the U.S., love it or leave it," that is, a very poor substitute for any sort of vibrant, articulate, sturdy, decent, long-term existence.28 A gathering, that is, a thing, an issue, inside a Thing, an arena, can be very sturdy too, on the condition that the number of its participants, its ingredients, nonhumans as well as humans, be not limited in advance.29 It is entirely wrong to divide the collective, as I call it, into the sturdy matters of fact, on the one hand, and the dispensable crowds, on the other. Archimedes spoke for a whole tradition when he exclaimed: "Give me one fixed point and I will move the Earth," but am I not speaking for another, much less prestigious but maybe as respectable tradition, if I exclaim in turn "Give me one matter of concern and I will show you the whole earth and heavens that have to be gathered to hold it firmly in place"? For me it makes no sense to reserve the realist vocabulary for the first one only. 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 like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya between antifetishism and positivism, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution. I am aware that to get at the heart of this argument one would have to renew also what it means to be a constructivist, but I have said enough to indicate the direction of critique, not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.30 Not westward, but, so to speak, eastward.31
The practical problem we face, if we try to go that new route, is to associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, knee-jerk reactions, habits of thoughts. To begin with this new habit forming, I'd like to extract another definition of critique from the most unlikely source, namely Allan Turing's original paper on thinking machines.32 I have a good reason for that: here is the typical paper about formalism, here is the origin of one of the icons—to use a cliché of antifetishism—of the contemporary age, namely the computer, and yet, if you read this paper, it is so baroque, so kitsch, it assembles such an astounding number of metaphors, beings, hypotheses, allusions, that there is not a chance for such a paper to be accepted nowadays by any journal. Even Social Text would reject it out of hand as another hoax! "Not again," they would certainly say, "burnt once not twice." Who would take a paper seriously that states somewhere after having spoken of Muslim women, punishment of boys, extrasensory perception: "In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping [God's] power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates" ("CM," p. 443).
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