What Does it Mean to be Critical?

In school we were endlessly exhorted to think critically, and certainly almost all of us who teach exhort our students to do the same. Indeed, the development of supposedly critical thought plays a central role in the Common Core standards that replaced the No Child Left Behind framework which, as a relic of the Bush years, was utterly immune to criticality and thus utterly unable to conceptualize, finally, even its own glaring stupidity. In order to mollify the cruelly bureaucratic, standardization-obsessed, and cash-hungry gods of university accreditation, my own school has developed and come to rely on a college-wide General Education Learning Outcome focused on critical thought, viz., “Students analyze issues, ideas, behaviors, and events to develop opinions, solutions, or conclusions.” Similarly, the Common Core Standards focus on analysis, evaluation, and problem solving as the central movements of critical thought. Such approaches to critical thought conceptualize it as something like a distinct and schematically definable cognitive “skillset,” a specific range of “useful” cognitive functions (often linked to specific verbs relating to mental operations: “define,” “distinguish,” “evaluate,” etc., largely derived from Bloom’s taxonomy) that can be developed within the framework of an institutional conception of human intellectual experience that’s so thoroughly taxonomized and reified it can, finally, only be understood as a farce of thought, which in truth has far more to do with the conscious orientation we bring to our experience than with supposed skills and frameworks.

Such a farce, of course, is utterly in keeping with the goals of the institutional structures that have brought it into being. But it is far too little—especially at this late date in the history of thought—to point out that the idea of critical thought has been rendered vague, mechanical, silly, and harmless by the process of its institutionalization. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s interest in supporting Early Childhood Education will perhaps serve to clarify the stakes somewhat:

Since the end of the Sputnik era, our nation has lacked the urgency to make education a national priority—until now. Global competition for human talent and innovation, long-standing educational achievement gaps, low high school graduation rates, and the pending retirement of 77 million baby boomers have placed tremendous workforce pressures on American business. These pressures, if not checked, will jeopardize our national economic security and the viability of the American dream.

Because the business community understands the importance of having a world-class education system, the mission of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW) is to promote high educational standards and effective workforce training. Achieving a world-class system, however, begins with high-quality early learning opportunities for children from birth to age five.

I once came across a Chamber pamphlet that put it more succinctly: “Workforce preparedness begins at birth.” Before moving any further toward an understanding of what criticality might entail, we must first confront the fact that the spaces in our society in which the development of criticality is sanctioned, our educational institutions, are themselves extensions of the almost incomprehensibly enormous indoctrinational structures of the ideology of total capital. The Chamber—a strong supporter of Common Core—is hardly shy about the propagandistic and indoctrinational nature of its project, though they seem convinced—in classic Karl Rovian style—that their propaganda, which is backed by unfailingly positivistic and therefore unfailingly propagandistic science, is the propaganda. In a section discussing “the effects of early experiences on brain architecture,” the Chamber’s report Why Business Should Support Early Childhood Education concludes that “early mastery of a range of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies makes learning at later ages more efficient and therefore easier and more likely to continue.” As “neural circuits mature,” an idea which in and of itself demands a reified vision of consciousness, it’s of the utmost importance, from the Chamber’s perspective, that those supposed circuits harden in forms informed by the “competencies” most amenable to the conduct of business as usual. If Common Core’s notion, and, moreover, our general cultural notion, of criticality can be made to mesh with such thinking, then we must understand that what we now call critical thought will, in the end, amount to little more than a bit of perfunctory forehead wrinkling before filling in the Scantron bubble or authorizing the offshoring and automation of another dying town’s livelihood or pressing the very expensive button that launches a very expensive Hellfire missile from a very expensive Predator drone at some entirely impoverished village on the other side of the planet, right before the moment it disappears along with everyone in it into that terrific conflagration only money can buy.

The functionalist, instrumentalized conception of human thought and consciousness—which, finally, imagines that none of us is much more than a sort of oddly and imperfectly programmed computer somehow grown from an egg—that underlies this most common cultural notion of critical thinking is clearly insufficient, both in that it cannot even begin to account for actual human beings’ lived experiences—experiences in which, for instance, we do not seem simply to be machines running programs through various well-worn neural “circuits”—and in that it forecloses upon the possibilities of human thought that might lead us decidedly away from the conduct of business as usual, but we must also understand that any attempt to provide a strict definition of the critical would suffer its own crippling insufficiencies. Perhaps one thing we might say to begin to orient ourselves toward the idea of the critical is that critical questions—including the question of criticality itself—cannot be settled by recourse to the dictionary. Certainly many people have been frustrated at some point by that type of person who attempts to settle an argument by reciting what Webster thinks. Then there are those supposedly more advanced folks who arm themselves with the OED. Established facts—which, troublingly and not unrelatedly, are more and more treated as if infinitely malleable in the face of subjectivity—are nothing more than a cudgel in this model of thinking, a way of beating others into submission. In such a situation, radical subjectivization does nothing but turn us all into monsters. People who think entirely within the bounds of the supposedly—by whoever’s account—settled can only be understood as uncritical persons, persons who have not pressed their thinking beyond all that claims or is accepted to be established fact, persons whose entire understanding of the world is limited, thereby, to the conduct of business as usual. One aspect of the genuinely critical is that it in some sense lies outside the bounds of established fact and reason, outside the bounds of the world’s normal functioning as well as of all those systems that maintain and propogate it. What this sense is becomes critical to our idea of criticality. One thing this tells us, perhaps, is that an understanding of the critical would have to become suffused in the reality of the socio-historical dimension and not held be aloft from it in some naïvely Platonic fashion: what was critical in France in 1327 is not the same as what was critical in America in 1987; what is critical today might not be what is critical tomorrow, what is critical here might not be what is critical there. Like any concept, the critical can only be approached inside the context of historical relationships in which it becomes discernible. But how can this be done if what tends to go under the name of the critical has been adapted to the perpetuation of the world as it is and stripped, in the process of this adaptation, of its genuinely critical attributes? If the genuinely critical really has been concealed from our view, then only by pressing through the ideologically manipulated concept—a process, appropriately enough, referred to as “ideology critique”—might we find, in the negated space of ideology, the shape of what has been kept from us.

But we are socialized to disdain negativity. We are told from an early age that if we have nothing nice to say, we ought not say anything at all. We are bombarded throughout the course of our lives with clichés that demand we think positively and look at the bright side and concentrate on silver linings. The books—to the extent that anyone still reads—and TV shows and movies and music and games and “platforms” our culture is awash in rely so heavily on these clichés of positivity that many people indeed begin to understand them as universal truths rather than a sort of ideology that has been relentlessly hammered into us. In school I remember quite clearly having the notion drummed into me that “critique” needn’t be thought of negatively, that critique or criticism or critical remarks ought to be thought of more broadly as a sort of “feedback” or a method of providing commentary, always positively constructed. Certainly nearly every writing workshop suffers this notion. An NEA interview with NPR’s “art critic” Bob Mondello begins with Mondello explaining that “I regard it as my job to tell people about things I think are worth seeing… My reviews are of things that I liked.” The notion of criticism has largely been adapted to a form of appreciation. Of course we shouldn’t find it at all surprising that mass media “criticism” amounts to little more than a series of advertisements for entertainment commodities; it’s never been more than this, and the struggle to succeed as a mass media or now new media critic is the struggle to become a so-called “taste-maker,” a person who can exercise influence over the consumptive habits of others; a certain amount of shallow negativity can still be found in some critics, but according to the market positivity is what sells and so mostly what reaches consumers. The culture has almost entirely stripped the idea of negativity from the idea of the critical. And yet it was presumably because we all expected negativity from criticism that so much a fuss was made to make us think otherwise. This enormous and seemingly counter-intuitive redefinition of the critical serves, of course, an ideological function. The social disdain for negativity, which, if we consider it for the moment in the limited realm of media criticism, is demanded by the conduct of business as usual: when our consumption of entertainment commodities is at stake, anything more than the lightest brush with negativity begins to threaten the hegemony of what Adorno and Horkheimer so long ago dubbed “the culture industry.” Stripped of its inherent negativity, the critical approach becomes indistinguishable from the affirmative approach, becomes indistinguishable, in other words, from an endorsement or advertisement, no matter how often NPR tries to soothe its listeners with the idea it remains uncorrupted by advertisements. Seemingly without any awareness at all, they mimic the form of the advertisement in their supposed criticism because the forms of mass mediation have never been anything but the forms of the advertisement. NPR’s clever racket is to ask listeners to pick up the tab. Without negativity, the critical loses its fundamentally critical character; it becomes a meaningless term, no longer firmly attached to any theory of critical practice, except perhaps that one should do as the critic says, which is of course an authoritarian position. At best, and like everything else these days, “criticism” is taken to mean whatever anyone happens to think, which, in the face of critical thought’s near-universal demise, is mostly nothing to begin with. If the critical is to mean anything at all, we must understand that to approach a thing critically is necessarily to approach it negatively, to approach it with the intent of discovering the ways in which it is not what it claims or seems to be or does not do what it claims or seems to do. To approach a thing critically is to take nothing about it for granted, to try to see through a thing’s ideological veil in order to begin to understand the actual relationships that construct the context of both its socio-historical objectivity and our socio-historically conditioned encounter with it. A critical encounter with the world emerges from an unhappiness or dissatisfaction–i.e., a negativity–toward the answers the world offers for itself and a subsequent need that arises within consciousness to break through the web of the world’s lies and into the realm of the excess of its possibilities. Positive evidence of this negative need on the part of consciousness, this need to negate those ideas that seek to bind consciousness in perpetuity to an irreconcilable experience of the world—all while everything purports to be completely reconciled—exists in the whole history of human thought: negativity, not settling with the present state of understanding, motivates all true thought. Against this inherent negativity of consciousness—a quality of critical consciousness most often misunderstood or miscast as “curiosity” in textbooks and frameworks and taxonomies seeking to “teach” supposed criticality—the world of positivity offers those who would engage in critical thought, those who would seek a critical encounter with reality a whole range of psychopharmaceuticals and consciousness-numbing commodities. Go see a movie! Take this! Try to relax! we’re told. From the perspective of the business-as-usual world, the problems people have becoming reconciled to reality are problems entirely internal to those people, a negativity in them that must be purged. It is a person’s failure to “adapt” to reality that is at issue and never a problem with the fact that reality itself is a nightmare of meaningless barbarity, stupidity, exploitation, oppression, and destruction. Positive, appreciative thinking seeks to establish a universal and willful ignorance of these realities.

Which is to say that in addition to being necessarily negative, necessarily arranged against the seeming irrefutability of the world that presents itself to us today, criticality must also be understood in light of what we might call critical necessity in general. Any sober assessment of the future of civilization must admit that, within the space of a few generations, human society will come to face any number of genuinely existential threats, threats civilization will have brought upon itself. The continuing conduct of business-as-usual will only hasten these apocalyptic scenarios’ approach, and this will result in meaningless mass-death on scales we seem utterly incapable, at this point in the history of human imagination, of imagining. Because—like any concept—it cannot be conceived at all except within the socio-historical dimension of reality, the critical’s necessity—a sense that survives in common uses of the term such as “it’s critical that we get this done right now”—must be understood in light of our current moment, and most especially what constrains its possibilities. What is critical seeks to negate those constraints, those constraining ideas, those ideological impositions that have shackled human thought to pure positivity and thereby shackled us to our fate; it does this in order to open access to real possibilities of human experience and existence that might allow humans to continue to exist into the future, that might even allow something worthy of the concept of a genuine humanity to come into existence. Rather than throwing up its hands in the face of the vicissitudes of history, critical thought strives to bring the movements of history to consciousness. Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach speaks to this imperative of thought: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” It is not—at least not at this point in human history—any sort of purely theoretical concern but in fact the practical question, the question about what we ought now do and how we ought now do it, that motivates critical thought, and, furthermore, in that truly practical activity contains an inherently negative moment, in that it negates through the transformative power of human labor the present state of affairs, questions of practice might also be understood as giving rise to the shape of criticality from the start. What distinguishes what we might call critical or necessary practical action from activity generally is the orientation and scope of its negativity. While the next iPhone operating system might in some definitional sense negate some of the functions of the previous system, it’s highly unlikely—unless Apple uses the next iOS to weaponize the phone against itself so that we might become free of its hold on our consciousness—that these changes will lead to the opening of any possibilities for the continued life of human consciousness into the future; more likely than not, the changes will simply continue to foreclose on such possibilities. Critical, necessary practice leads in the opposite direction; what such practice is critical to is the continued survival and development of human consciousness. Realizing the implications of this will give us, for instance, a set of objective criteria by which we might judge technology’s supposed advancements and innovations, most of which will be revealed before conscious, critical judgment as anything but. But even such judgments and such criteria could only be considered critical within the context of their own socio-historical moment. The necessity of the critical’s negativity can only be conceived in relation to the totality of present conditions or what we might call objective reality, and this reality, this objective world the critical longs to bring to consciousness and reshape for consciousness, can only begin to be accessed by a critical negation of the ideological structures that conceal the truth of experience from us. Particular moments of criticality, utterly necessary and negative in their own context, can only be understood as momentary and contextual in both their negative power and their necessity. Failing to contextualize criticality in this fashion—and any static taxonomy of the “steps” to critical thought does this before a thought ever has a chance to form—leads to its reification and transforms critical potential into mere ideology, which is as deadly to thought as it is to experience, all of which is evidenced by the fact that ideology has led and is leading us toward stupid, brutal, utterly unnecessary mass-death, not to mention all of the physical and psychological tortures that precede and accompany it.

The supposed problem of conceiving at all of anything akin to objective reality is itself an ideological smokescreen. If what we seek, or, in other words, if our objective is a more and increasingly just world, we have already conceived of objectivity on multiple fronts: we have not only formed an objective of our own that exists beyond our positive subjectivity, but we have hinged it upon a concept of justice, a concept the most basic premise of which supersedes mere subjectivity. To be sure, our knowledge of objectivity is and will remain incomplete. This is inescapable, and epistemology’s inability to codify every aspect of knowledge’s substance even as it moves in time should be taken to tell us more about the impossibility of codification than the impossibility of knowledge. Ideology is a sort of false and imposed codification, a hemming in of the horizons of our possible knowledge, a false consciousness, in Marx’s formulation. Criticality, in its necessity and negativity, seeks to no longer be contained by such imposed constraints. The sense of uncontainability inherent in the critical can still be found in the idea of a “critical mass.” In the context of atomic weapons, critical mass refers to the minimum amount of fissile material necessary to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. When the detonation of the weapon creates a critical mass and such a chain reaction commences, the energy of the reaction can no longer be contained within the space of the material, and it bursts forth from what had contained its potential with tremendous negative force. It obliterates what had been its boundaries. Critical thought, likewise, cannot be contained within the ideological structures that, in their negative motivation of thought itself, bring criticality into being. Out of the impossible pressures, out of the web of false reconciliations that seek to contain thought, truly critical thought opens new horizons for thought itself, and it is against these new horizons that the process of criticality then rearranges itself so that it might again become critical in the new context it has created. This is not meant to be mere analogy: critical thought—and the practice of life that leads from it—has the power to transform the world as decisively and irrevocably as nuclear weapons, but by letting life become more conscious rather than by negating both life and consciousness. The potential of a thought’s criticality must be understood in some sense then as its detonative yield: what constraints of thought does it make its materials and are these assembled materials capable of sustaining the sort of chain reaction of negativity that will lead to the constraints’ vaporization? In the atomic realm, a subcritical mass is an amount of fissile material incapable of sustaining a chain reaction; its self-destructive, self-transcending potential radiates out of it as poisonous radiation as it itself deadens into poisonous lead. This perhaps illuminates the limitations of most later 20th and now 21st century “critical” theory, which tends to construct both its concerns and concepts from insufficient materials. The supposedly postmodern collapse of thought into navel-gazing and solipsistic ideological subjectivism, an aspect of what Adorno called “identity thinking”—a collapse that can only be properly understood in relation to positivism and its twin capitalism and the joint venture of these to render everything in isolation so that things’ specific values might be quantified and they might be made thus into what is understood as merely exchangeable—denies thought access to the objective character of what constrains it, and thought, thereafter, is robbed of the materials that might sustain a critical reaction. The fall away from an objective orientation in thought decisively limits its critical potential. Though the claim that the Marxist tradition is, for example, insufficiently intersectional, is common enough these days, we must recognize that such a claim seems to neither understand the supposedly Marxist tradition or its own objective basis. The tradition of dialectic of which Marx’s work forms a moment is itself what provides the conceptual basis for any theory of intersectionality, which is grounded in the dialectic of subject and object and the theory of socially imposed authoritarian identification that follows from it. The whole notion of identity did not simply arise from supposedly immediate experience; it, like everything, has a history, and understanding what it is now is not possible without understanding this history. That the Western educational apparatus has, since at least the mid-20th century, been devoted to the propagation of anti-communal, anti-historical, anti-conceptual, and hyper-individualistic propaganda provides some explanation for the misunderstanding. Most self-fashioned Marxists have little philosophical sense of the tradition themselves. The supposedly postmodern is not so much a matter of objectivity’s decay or splintering or impossibility as the fact that we have been raised to be blind to it, so that we take notice, now, only of seemingly scattered and seemingly inscrutable things. Only what seeks to negate the most fundamental structures of injustice and unfreedom—including, for instance, the structures of authoritarian identification—, only what seeks to destroy the false horizons of thought that entrap us within meaninglessness, only this can be thought of as what is now necessary to our survival and progress; only a theory that reaches toward revolution can be understood as critical; only revolutionary thought is critical.

It is of course then a fair enough question why something like critical aesthetics ought even be considered. Art, after all, doesn’t seem to be the clearest route to revolution. But, once again, any sober look at our current situation has to admit that there is no clear route to this inside the realm of consciousness-as-usual. Like art, revolution—and Marx, though he preferred to fashion himself as a scientist rather than a metaphysician, was himself entirely aware of this—is itself a matter of consciousness. But the incipient proletarian class consciousness in which Marx imagined the potential for the development of the subject of universal history is—because it has been systematically destroyed—virtually nowhere to be found in our moment; at the very least, there is not a critical mass of it. The positivistic orientation of society has rendered even the most passing mention of consciousness highly suspect: we are, after all, best understood as sorts of biological machines, and, again, if for some reason we despair of this apparent reality this must be understood as a malfunctioning of our particular mechanism: rather than trying to remedy the conditions that seem to have brought about our despair, we are meant to get to a service center—whether it be a movie theater or a boutique-y downtown shopping district or whatever else—to have our functioning re-adapted to conditions; we are meant to feel reconciled to our meaningless fate. The practical matter of revolution runs up, at every turn, against the constraints that have been placed upon thinking, upon consciousness. Art’s role—and this arises from the fact that art necessarily and inescapably, no matter what else it may claim or desire to do or be, makes representations of consciousness and thus also of the world out of which consciousness arises—is in the representation of the imaginative revelation of these constraints of consciousness. This revelation, this bringing-to-consciousness of an image of what constrains it, this is what the entertainment commodities of the culture industry do not and, from a formal point of view, cannot do; rather, they reinforce what constrains us, either by falsely naturalizing these things or else trying to pawn them off on us as some sort of supposed freedom itself. One of the greatest obstacles to our emancipation from what we’ve become is our identification with commodity culture, and our emancipation from these identifications hinges upon our ability to become critical of the cultural commodities—the movies, music, television, websites, “apps,” games, and whatever else—we have convinced ourselves we love most and need or, God forbid, “live for.” These things numb us to and distract us from the despair of us, even while our despair grows and hastens us toward our own and everyone’s death. We must understand that the commodities of “pop” culture are not and never have been art, no matter how much market-driven and appreciative “art criticism” has been devoted to them for the last century or so. Some large and difficult part of the personal experience of entering into the critical is coming to recognize the inescapable and utterly banal oppressiveness of all of the songs we told ourselves we loved most. We must understand that the critical experience of art will not make us feel in some immediate sense free or humane or a part of some sort of inherently meaningful community, for we are neither free nor are we humane nor are we a part of some inherently meaningful community. The critical experience of art—and a critical aesthetics would be devoted to the development of compositional methods that might bring this experience about—would force us to feel the intolerable, inhumane pressures, the stupid, torturous everydayness of business-as-usual’s ideological constraints. The critical experience of art would help us to become conscious of our own experience. Art would reflect the unbearableness of us to us. The only truthful representation art might hope to reflect to us is that of our unfreedom and socially imposed meaninglessness, the entire scope of it, the global and microscopic simultaneity of it. And there, in the realization of our unfree condition, and in the revelation of that condition’s contingency, its fundamentally unnecessary and constructed and historical, changeable character, hope, pale and disembodied as it may be these days, lurks.

Philosophy, to the extent that any such thing still exists—and it is almost entirely absent from supposed philosophy departments and programs in American universities; if it anymore exists it exists only in the theoretical practice of day-to-day life—, is the proving ground for critical thought. Critical thought and the construction of a critical theory are themselves absolutely necessary forms of practice at this moment. Only such a theory could begin to illuminate the possible paths to revolution. But before theoretical practice might become revolutionary practice, the problem of the representational aspect of our oppression—the problem of commodity culture itself and what representational forms could resist simply becoming more empty replications of it—must be addressed. Artistic practice arises directly from aesthetic theory, and art, if its practice is critically engaged, thus becomes a form of pseudo-direct practice. Art is the proving ground of both critical imagination and the representation of that imagination’s critical vision; as a representation of such a vision, it will always fail to become what it desires to be, but this failure is also what motivates art, what drives it to desire becoming ever-closer to truth, though it can never be truth itself. What art seeks is the moment where beauty and truth intersect in reality, so that it might then reflect them without guilt. But until that moment, art’s guilt, the fact that it always fails to be the art it claims to be, must motivate it to destroy those structures that render its guilt inescapable. Art must not be mistaken for pretty lies that make us feel better about the atrocity of us.

It will be objected that this would mean there would be no more joy or beauty or comfort or renewal in art. The truth is far from it: the joy and beauty and comfort that arise from a critical encounter with our condition are not only the only true joy and beauty and comfort we might find in representation, but they are also fundamentally transformative. The joy of a critical encounter with art arises from entering into the image of criticality itself, where the critical’s devastating pressure can begin to vaporize our ideological bindings; the joy of art is that unbinding, which, though it will always lie beyond the image of the artwork itself, though it will always be a matter of the experience of the work, is real in the experience of art. It is a reality art can allow us to experience even though it is not yet real in the world, where beauty, comfort, joy, and peace are among those things we can’t really even imagine anymore except as momentary respites—getaways and retreats and days-off—we may or may not be able to afford. It presses us toward actual possibility. Art’s truth and hopefulness lie in its critical, revelatory, visionary, imaginative power; the content of its truth lies in its negation of what it had seemed to be. Whatever stops short of this is not only delusion, but delusion of the most malicious, propagandistic sort; whatever stops short of this functions to strengthen the idea that we are idiot machines in need of, first, an education the only purpose of which is to tune us to the performance of our assigned functions (which will be determined more or less by the educational apparatus itself) and then, over the course of our so-called lives, a series of further and ongoing attitudinal adjustments, all unto our death, which will be transformed into a valuable commodity by the medical-industrial complex.

Jeffrey Schultz is the author of two National Poetry Series Selections: Civil Twilight (Ecco, forthcoming 2017), and What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other (University of Georgia Press, 2014). His poems have appeared in Poetry, TriQuarterly, and Boston Review, and on Poetry Daily, PBS NewHour’s Art Beat, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Pepperdine University and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and a seemingly ever-increasing number of rescue animals.