Criticism II: Issues with Critique

What We are Doing    

In the last five posts from Joel and I, with four of those posts being from Joel (overachiever?), we have sought to direct our readers toward the critical project of Kant. The purpose of this direction is to firstly communicate tensions that Joel and I have discussed with regard to our own respective research projects. In addition, we are seeking to examine other tensions that lay beyond the purview of our immediate research contexts.

Regarding the first goal, Kant represents a particularly interesting turn in the history of thought as Joel and I (and Sean I’d wager, though I’m waiting to pick his mind more on this/convince him over a few drinks in the next week to be sure) think through how to think ‘hope’ and ‘utopia’ in relation to eschatology, political theory and personhood. I will say more about this in in the next post which will tease out a working thesis regarding Kant’s importance for thinking these concepts in relation to phenomenological projects, beginning with his influence in the work of Brentano and more importantly Husserl. For now, it suffices to say that Kant’s turn to the subject and the characterization of his particular turn as a ‘critical’ notion occupies much of our attention as it pertains to thinking through the pronouncement and enactment of critique.

The latter sort of engagement reflects our constructive insistence on re-appropriating Kant, insofar as this constructive insistence exercises a critical function upon a particular sort of discourse that is related to but not identical with our respective research projects. Our concern here is rooted in our feeling of a tendency in thought to make particular use of that adjective ‘critique.’ My approach toward this use is, as one might expect, an approach that assumes a possible misuse. Here I want to name or at least direct attention to the possibility of that misuse’s occurrence in discourse. In so doing I do not wish to lay claim to singular definition of critique’s definition, contra this targeted notion. Rather, this is the attempt to tease out a feeling of an occurrence that I perceive in my own interactions with people and in readings that concern themselves with the use of critique (i.e. critical theology, pedagogy etc.)

A Posture Toward Criticism

 To begin, I take as necessary a rigorous and self-reflexive posture toward the occurrence of critique so as to elucidate and safeguard any intelligibility of the notion whatsoever. It is important to realise this engagement, which in the verbal and written form we call ‘discourse,’ as one itself an ‘occurrence(s)’ in which one takes on or ‘is’ that entity-which-inquires as a mode of Being for the agent involved.[1] Such an occurrence for the person is with regard to another occurrence, or, to use the more familiar phrasing, phenomenon, that manifests among other types as the impetus for our becoming that particular entity, namely the object(s) of inquiry. Discoursing, the draw from Heidegger’s descriptive account, is always verbal, always itself “_‘ing” and in reference to _ in-the-world.[2] This is I believe to recognise, despite Heidegger’s best efforts (to say nothing of Husserl on this point for the time being), one of the most important recognitions by Kant. Namely, the realness of the person’s complicity in the creation of discourse, the recognition that this complicity is one of thought in-the-world, that the space in which thought occurs is real. This is the “space for intuition.”[3]

Recognising this as a basic understanding of how discourse, human lividness and cognition relate, I am not sure we know what we mean when we recourse to the concept of critique as our conceptual-object of meaning or action. Generally speaking we know that critical theories are all about emancipation of agents and exposing the ideological oppression at work in the world. This seems a simple enough definition but I want to question the notion that to schematize critique in this way is enough, that this reflective notion of critique in its most basic form is not without further assumption with regard to something like the constitution(s) of the person. For in addition to the necessary nature of recognising the person as constitutive in the constructive process of discourse, what do we decry if not the mechanization and dehumanization of people? To engage in the descriptive task of critically speaking of the experience of coercion by those who are viscerally oppressed is always a prescriptive activity. To decry is verbal, and with regard to a declaration of rebellion against forces of domination, a verb that requires a subject immanently present and known as authoritative for such speaking of critique.[4] Here I feel a tension with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s work in The Undercommons insofar as they point toward the necessity of recognising the immanent person, while chastising a logic that would seek to ground action in anything other than the immediate. . They note, “Uncut devotion to the critique of this illusion makes us delusional.[5] Yet, this is situated always in the self-possesion of persons without need for anything more than proleptic moments of hope that correspond directly with the unknowing of the present.[6]

The philosophical linkage between subject and object is, in this case, one for immanence as the beginning space, relation or context of construction in-the-world.[7] Construction is the rupturing of the communicative horizon by the newness we call ‘truth’ or ‘knowledge’. The ‘always relation’ to an object implies an immanent immersion with other entities in-the-world.  By so conceiving the relation one is not making objects dependent on the thinking entity, that is that entity-which-constructs. Rather this affirmation of the relation is to recognize the reality of the world and one’s existence as verbal, as “_-ing” in construction, ‘_-ing’ in-the-world with and as entities(y), constituting the most basic stuff of what we refer to when we talk of “discourse.” As such, critique must be always thought in the face of the imminently human. To speak without this recognition or without reflective description is to run the danger of our critical speech becoming nothing other than jargon.


[1] Heidegger, M., Being and time. 1967, Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 26-27. Heidegger points us to the complicity of Dasein in asking the questions that comprise discourse. Indeed, this complicity is an integral part to any sort of investigative truth that the discourse might elucidate. “Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, access to it-all these ways of behaving are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of Being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers, are ourselves.” (Italics are mine).

[2] Heidegger, M., Being and time. p. 56. “When fully concrete, discoursing (letting something be seen) has the character of speaking [Sprechens]-vocal proclamation in words.” The act of discoursing is itself then verbal, actively occurring in the world as a mode of Dasein’s Being and in tandem to its referents in-the-world. This process occurs in simultaneous fashion, on the same plane of action, the plane in which we speak of the Being of beings manifesting in such action.

[3] Kant, I., A.W. Wood, and G. Di Giovanni, Religion within the boundaries of mere reason and other writings. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. 1998, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 5. In this first section of the work Kant makes a rather simple argument for how to think of what it means for oneself to “orient.” He runs through examples of geography and mathematical calculation and then proceeds to explicate the space in which one orients with regard to thought. “Finally, I can extend this concept even further, since it could be taken as consisting in the faculty of orienting myself not merely in space, i.e. mathematically, but in thinking in general, i.e. logically…By analogy, one can easily guess that it will be a concern of pure reason to guide its use when it wants to leave familiar objects (of experience) behind, extending itself beyond all the bounds of experience and finding no object of intuition at all, but merely space for intuition.”

[4] Horkheimer, M., Critical theory: selected essays. 1982, New York: Continuum Pub. Corp. pp. 244-245. Horkheimer writes, “Every datum depends not on nature alone but also on the power man has over it. Objects, the kind of perception, the questions asked, and the meaning of the answers all bear witness to human activity and the degree of man’s power. In thus relating matter-that is, the apparently irreducible facts which the scientific specialist must respect-to human production, the critical theory of society agrees with German idealism. Ever since Kant, idealism has insisted on the dynamic moment in the relationship and has protested against the adoration of facts and the social conformism this brings with it.”

[5] Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. 2013, New York: Minor Compositions. p. 18.

[6] Harney and Moten. The Undercommons. p. 18. Here I am thinking of the description by the authors of the necessity for the undercommons to take possession of themselves in the immediacy of their situatedness, which manifests as one of being surrounded by an enemeny force, behind enemy lines. Such self-possession breaks apart the categories of politics and ontology and leaves only the immediacy of the present. “In the trick of politics we are insufficient, scarce, waiting in pockets of resistance, in stairwells, in alleys, in vain. The false image and its critique threaten the common with democracy, which is only ever to come, so that one day, which is only never to come, we will be more than what we are. But we already are. We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic.”

[7] Beginning is a notion that requires more delicate handling and definition in the future. However, the recognition of the turn to the subject in the space of the phenomena as beginning is important both for understanding the historical meaning of this in thinkers such as Kant and Husserl and for our present purposes of thinking the tension between discourse, immanence and critique. Here it is possible to tease our the necessity for such a notion as beginning in immanence. Moran, referring to Husserl, writes, “Husserl also recognised, however, a point that is often forgotten in the consideration of his philosophy, that this methodological solipsism could not be the whole of philosophy, but merely its beginning.” See: Moran, D., Introduction to phenomenology. 2000, London: Routledge. p. 61. Heidegger furthers the realization of this beginning in placing the question of Being, of the Being of beings, as we noted in footnote 2. Heidegger requires one to recognise the primacy of actualities, of particular beings and the respective actions and phenomenon when one seeks after and attempts to schematise essential definitions. This is a collapse of cognitive categories of metaphysics into the immanent plane of active existent reality. However, it is not a methodological move toward an immanence that dissipates the subject’s primary position with regard to the verbal occurrence of discourse. Heidegger retains the primacy of the Husserlian subject and the legacy of Kantian idealism, though with modification, in his privileging of Dasein in the task of inquiring after Being. In addition, it is worth noting how Daniel Barber’s notion of immenence as relation, in conjunction with what Heidegger does with injunction to recognise ontological difference, further illuminates the necessity of this recognition for thinking discourse. Barber, regarding the transgressive nature of naming immanence, writes, “being by recalling the difficulty engendered by the requisite refusal to make immanence immanent to something. This leaves us with an immanence that is autonomous, an immanence that is, as it were, in itself. Yet, immanence if we think of it as simply in itself, suddenly becomes a transcendent. Immanence cannot just be in itself, for this would make immanence relation into an object, into something that precedes the enactment or deployment of immanent relation.” (Italic are mine). See: Barber, D.C., On diaspora: Christianity, religion and secularity. 2011, Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books. p. 6.

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