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The critical and its anchorage into the social. An introduction to the 2009 winter issue of Politics and Culture

The critical usually finds itself in a difficult relationship with the social. Its strong investment into social change renders it both necessary and uncomfortable. Its necessity originates from the impossibility to ultimately stabilise and saturate the social, which generates spaces for difference and diversity, which in turn are the conditions of possibility for dissensus. Although we might cherish fantasies about societal consensus and harmony, and at the same time deeply fear the total loss of individuality in a Brave New World, the social is structurally characterised by conflict, which simultaneously opens up the spaces for the critical to be elaborated.

This broad perspective towards the critical opens up a wide variety of objectives and uses of the critical. Following Gramsci’s distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals, we can distinguish between critical projects that serve specific hegemonies, and critical projects that try to mediate between these hegemonies and other (potentially counter-hegemonic) discourses. Obviously, the third cluster of critical projects then consists of the counter-hegemonic discourses themselves.

One consequence of this basic typology is that the critical cannot be equated with the counter-hegemonic. The signifier ‘the critical’ is part of a play of resistance and incorporation, where a diversity of societal projects formulate claims towards the critical and where other projects in their turn retaliate by launching counter-claims about their being ‘truly’ critical. In other words, the critical is always ideological, as it uses specific political reference points and utopias. These ‘not-places’ and ‘never-to-be-places’ provide the critical with its ultimate horizons, whose phantasmagoric realization serve as its breeding grounds. Given the multitude of potential reference points, the critical functions as a floating signifier, that can be articulated in different, even contradictory, discourses. One example –in this issue of Politics and Culture- can be found in Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s article, and the discussion on the position of the critical towards secularism and religion.

But this is not the only complication that the critical has to face in relation to the counter-hegemonic. As argued elsewhere (see Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2009), a social order is not constituted by merely one hegemony, but by a network of articulated hegemonies, that (sometimes) interlock, and mutually enhance and enforce each other. In order to be successful, or even understandable, critical projects need their anchorages into that social order, which implies the unavoidable acceptance of some (components of) these hegemonies in order to resist other hegemonies. When critical projects attempt to tackle multiple hegemonies at the same time, they tend to become radical, which brings about the risk of total disarticulation from the social and the consequent loss of their discursive strength.

The need for anchorage into the social provides the critical with its worldliness but also renders the critical always particular, partial and cultural. Theo Jung’s historical approach towards the critical (or what’s left of it) in this issue of Politics and Culture only bears witness of this cultural situatedness. But at the same time, the anchorage of the critical into the social does not make it comfortable, as it dislodges and deconstructs other components of the social. This situates the critical in a dialectics of reaffirmation and disapproval, of compliance and resistance, of stability and change. Its ‘negative’ side nevertheless remains one of its main characteristics, which is often aimed against the taken-for-granted and against what is considered to be at the heart of the social.

Not surprisingly, these attempts to de-doxify the social can sometimes become articulated as social threats, which legitimises the fierce reactions, social sanctions and criminalisations that the critical then has to face. In this issue of Politics and Culture we can find an example in Sina Rahmani’s article on the history of the Black Block, but also Leo Strauss’ “Persecution and the Art of Writing” (discussed in Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s article) provides us with an example, as it describes how philosophers like Maimonides hid meanings in their texts to avoid persecution. As these two examples show, the critical is sometimes confronted with (state) apparati that attempt to protect their ideological projects through the use of (state) violence, showing that hegemonies are still protected by the use of force if this is deemed necessary.

However relevant the (analysis of the) discursive struggle over the critical is, the broad approach behind it triggers the risk of radical relativism and nihilism. Arguably, many critical projects close to Cultural Studies have been discursive (and activist) watchdogs of a series of universalised values, like human rights, social justice, democracy, and peace, without neglecting the constructed nature of their universalisation processes and the situatedness of their articulations. So it comes as no surprise that one of the essays in this issue, written by Rob Leurs, looks at the discourse-theoretical toolbox and what its non-essentialism can offer to Cultural Studies. But at the same time these universalised values do provide the anchorage of the critical into the social, their importance strategically and temporarily fixed to disrupt other certainties and to critically demonstrate the prices paid for the lack of the radicalised realisation of human rights, social justice, democracy, and peace (without wanting to produce an exhaustive list).

To give two examples: First, Said’s call for intellectuals to speak truth to power, so crucial to our academic activity, not only presupposes access to this truth (however constructed truthfulness might be) but it also requires an anchorage into social justice and power, where structural power imbalances become important enough to be scrutinised and publically exposed, however difficult that might prove to be. Another example is Mouffe’s call for the hegemony of democracy. Strongly attached to diversity and fluidity, Mouffe simultaneously privileges the democratic as an anchorage point, as this democratic horizon allows for the conversion of antagonisms into agonisms. The attachment to the basic principles of democracy thus become the starting point of a critical project that meticulously analyses how conflict is ignored and pushed to the outsides of society, only to come back with a vengeance.

These examples also make it clear that there are many sites and locations of the critical and its anchorage points. And this again brings me to this issue of Politics and Culture, as a number of essays investigate how the critical is deployed in several locations. Philosophy (addressed in the articles written by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft and Rob Leurs) and activism (discussed in Sina Rahmani’s article) have already been mentioned. Two other articles, written by Sebastian Nestler and Fien Adriaens, look at popular culture as a site for the critical, while Daniel Ashton looks at education and Heather Davis studies the role (community) arts practice can play. Together with a series of book reviews, these essays show how the critical remains a free-floating enterprise and a crucial site of human agency, paradoxically made possible by the fluidity of the social and by the partial fixation of the critical through its anchorage into the social.

References

Cammaerts, Bart, Carpentier, Nico (2009) ‘Blogging the 2003 Iraq War: Challenging the Ideological Model of War and Mainstream Journalism?’, OBS*, 3(2), http://obs.obercom.pt/index.php/obs/article/view/276.

Mouffe, Chantal (2005) On the political. London: Routledge.

Said, Edward (1996) Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Vintage.

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