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The Concept of Criticism in the Dark

By Athi Mongezeleli Joja on 11 November

After Darkness

After Darkness, . Blank image

Here I am trying to reply to the plastic sword duel between Gerhard Schoeman’s 'The Concept of Criticism at Twilight' and Chad Rossouw’s 'The Concept of Criticism at Breaking Dawn'. In our era of lamentable sexual freedoms, what could go wrong if I join the steamy sauna of critical masturbation? There is something really filmic about the chosen concept titles, suggestive of something akin to sensual fencing. Funnily enough, according to the geopolitical frames of African filmic language, twilight and breaking dawn are known for what is called “the golden hour.” Perhaps what Heidegger might have characterized as “the proper hour of discourse.” The most elegant moment of light – not artificial light gels. We must not take these chosen temporalities for granted. Both of them have something in common – they are liminal zones – one to darkness and the other to light. 

Sauntering through the two texts, first, you find no direct links to the beautiful temporally fixed imagery. Gerhard’s piece is an exhaustive critical treatment; a poem of endless stanzas that sheds off its luminosity in the critical hour of impending night like a snake peeling off its decaying limpid tunic. He opens with a rare pessimistic line: “Art criticism and art academia in South Africa are bust.” And immediately, I felt the rush of merciless sadism; this is the cynical father driving us into the night with his whipping meditations and prose. Chad’s rejoinder from the get-go opens with canons and dynamites. Formalist in his approach, he relentlessly shoots straight at Gerhard for frolicking in the terrain of theory and elitism. While Chad optimistically thrusts us into opening of day – a liminal moment replete with ecstasy like subjects shooting firecrackers on new years’ eve. Gerhard is the standard disgruntled leftists totally dismayed by the lingering journalistic mediocrity masquerading as criticism, and plunges us to nightmarish nocturnal misery. 

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In clear terms Gerhard tries to show how current criticism – in the art system – has rather become phony, reactionary, sheer prattling and thus emaciated. He labors mercilessly through the archive of critical theory’s laments against the mummification of criticism. Echoing the emerging left-leaning dissent against this journalistic restfulness of criticism, once noticed by critic Sabine Vogel, he cries: “what is published seldom goes beyond glib journalism, navel gazing, name calling and defunct academic posturing – twittering and gossip”. This kind of turn in art critical circles has become a way of describing the death of art criticism. It is an existence in or toward death. Some attribute this decline of art critical value on the art object’s turn to self-reflexivity, and the rise of art theory, which is always taken up by artists themselves. For chaps like Boris Groys there has been an exchange it seems: as artists move to criticism, critics move to making art. Groys writes that this was inevitable since art criticism itself is art and auto-critical in its moves. “Thus a gradual erasure of the line between artist and art critic completes itself, while the traditional distinction between artist and curator, and critic and curator, tends toward disappearance.”

Adorno already attributed this slendering of a sustainable cultural experience to the generative interpellative procedures of the “culture industry.” The conditions of its possibility create depoliticized and disjunctive notions of criticism, what critic David Riff might call criticality devoid of truth, that is, truth as the philosophical name for justice in Badiou. As Lukacs, Jameson, Eagleton have relentlessly argued, cultural production under capitalism, much like everything else, suffers. It “produces unprecedented amounts of fast-moving ideological commodities, in part by co-opting armies of critical-minded, quasi-politicised amateurs, and introducing them to an endless workday of the professional audience” according to Riff. Lukacs bolsters this in his seminal The Writer and Critic: like critics, the writers have become specialist in a “field” of work. The critic and the artist stand together as mercenaries and beggars before what Bourdieu termed “the invisible hand” of market. However for Gerhard, the argument isn’t the waning numbers of art writers, but the seeming capitulation to what is standard or constitutive of criticism today. Gerhard’s brand of criticality is that which espouses materialist reading of cultural production, a brand of inquiry scorned upon a la Chad.

Gerhard treads through critical and art theory to expose the conceptual poverty of current writing and reflection on cultural production. His line of inquiry remains consistent in the main with the discursive space of criticism (a fairly ubiquitous sphere of inquiry – interdisciplinary). His opprobrium on the sloppiness of art critical function is neither a plea for philosophy, critical theory etc. to ‘sublate’ art criticism nor is it a rigorous distantiation. This crisis is itself a product of space and time. For philosopher and critic Michael Newman philosophy is already facing its own inner emaciations.

However Chad on the other side is suggestive of many directions but doesn’t take any. He begins by conceding to Gerhard and that he could point a few dozen articles as testament to the generic failure in criticism, but he doesn’t do so: he chose to show his opposition. Chad takes unremitting swings at Gerhard’s piece, calling it narrow, reactionary, elitist and such.  Isn’t this very weird coming from a white art practitioner in South Africa – I mean what could be the best example of narrow, reactionary, elitism if not the general white art world? Chad’s first point is to prove to us that criticism already was seen negatively - pompous, conservative etc. That criticism was defined by its indomitable lack – “never being enough.”1

But Chad’s quick discount of criticism’s elitism, forgets that so called fine art itself not only precedes criticism in its elitism and narrowness but the long western art historiographical landscape littered with anecdotes of arts attempts to overcome its own limitations and narrownesses. Wasn’t the avant-garde’s seeming distance from the public criticized as ‘elitist’? Wasn’t the adoption of abstract art forms in South Africa in the height of the struggle also criticized of bourgeois tendencies and elitism? Or should we simply accept the slippages of this rejoinder, including the subtle racism that undergirds its discursive blindness, as conversation amongst insiders or contemporaries? In simpler terms is Chad’s wager on art criticism elitism not showing whiteness’ propensity to elide the lingering plight of black oppression as incognito? That is to say the very elitism that Chad is alluding to is aimed at those who already are insiders in the anti-black art world.  

Also the lack, which he casually attributes to criticism, is the lack found first in art practice. At the same time ‘the lack’ is pervasive in fields of knowledge writ large. That is to say, ‘the lack’ is definitive and inevitable in as much as human subjects – producers of knowledge – are fallible and insatiable beings. Its ubiquity can be best explained by the psychoanalytic notion of desire – the punctuating reality of impossibility and failure to attain the desired object. Chad then introduces the alternative idea of criticism, what he calls realkritic – an art supplement for realpolitik. He argues that realkritik has four main premises, which I can’t enumerate here in detail because of space limits but I’ll summarize their tenets as we go along.

Chad’s realkritik is the deviatory home-brew but with identifiable residual filial connections. For example he says, “Solutions lie in actions not in poking dogs with sticks.” Half of the time it feels like Chad wrote his rejoinder half asleep or on a crazy Friday night, outside, on the benches of Kimberly Hotel. Or better sounds like an NGO manifesto: ‘stop theorizing, children are starving’. It is this very response, which relatively proves not only Gerhard and other ‘conservative’ critics right about the culture industry’s surrendering to mediocrity. However Chad is right to say criticism must: look first! Or what reminds me of Mao’s On Practice: his “from concrete to theoretical” trajectory. For Chad, and here he’s at his Brechtian best at least, we must not assume that the reader doesn’t know – criticism begins in moments of crises, feeling, suspicion etc. It still boggles my mind why he’ll make these assumption apropos Gerhard. Doesn’t this perceptive confusion and blindness pretty much implicate Chad himself? Here I am on the side of Gerhard when he writes, what is published  “seldom goes beyond glib journalism, navel gazing, name calling and defunct academic posturing – twittering and gossip.”

Its unfortunate that Chad would go far to defend “bitching” as the archetype or equal of criticism, an excess which Gerhard sees as symptomatic of suicidal route of thinking, critically. When Gerhard says, “seldom goes beyond” – he’s already conceding to the unavoidability of bitching as a constituent element, but dispels “prattling” as the definitive whole that summarizes the discursive plane of understanding. Even for Brecht who is much attentive to subtleties, though ‘bitching’ is significant, it cannot be the defining mode of reason. Thus Chad not only thinks childishly here, but he behaves like a proper spoilt brat. 

But what remains missing, problematicised, unthought and at the same time common in both reflections? Chad as said is the pop star art commentator who, in the words of Lenin to Kautsky, makes litter out of criticism. Chad’s liminal moment isn’t accidental but defines at best the character of a somnambulist – a false conscious subject. While Gerhard’s is perturbed by what his Benjamin might call “a sun rising in the sky of history” – a nightmare. If we revisit the choice of temporality and liminality in their titles we find something extremely interesting. We must say Chad’s walk into the light remains treacherous in the main. Our situation becomes that of a springbok thinking lights of a speeding car is daytime. We are screwed! Gerhard, in a more dialecticised way, realises the impending darkness is closer to the moment of salvation. Here we meet the cold face of our contextual fate - darkness. But what is this darkness that we either on the verge of entering or of escaping? This question briefly helps us sketch the “conceptual anxieties” of both Chad and Gerhard choice of temporalities.

First what remains to be Criticism and for that matter, public discourse’s major continual ideological bias or blunder, is its foreclosure of what was ‘eternal’ to the old2: attention to the precarious place of the human subject. As much as we see that there is something fundamentally wrong in criticism, that it postures and prattles, this articulation seems to be obscure in its larger formulations. There is little that brings the deliberated issue to the concrete daily-lived experience – to the fated horizons that critical inquiry gestures to: the human condition.

It is not enough to argue that contemporary art practice and thought largely functions as the apparatus of global capital. That the pseudo-creativity of this system is no more than the commodi?cation not only of the fruits of our labour, but also of all forms of life3. But we must however state categorically that in the context of South African realpolitik, as Enwezor noted years ago, is the polity organised along racial difference and oppression. Thus to wallow in the indecisive moment, the liminal zone of opaque existence, bespeaks of the historical tendency of both white radical and liberal alike in South Africa – one sealed in pessimism and other in optimism but never hatching. What is at work here between escaping the long nightmarish night and masochistically entering it, are none other than two sides of the same coin, in the fullest extent of the phrase. Both their assumptive logics are predicated on BEING living subjects – those who can mark a certain distance from darkness or simply choose either to be in or out. That is, as those who know freedom.

Any attempt to speak ‘action’ or critique of dematerialised criticism (proper) must gesture towards a subject made abject by power. A subject made fungible alterity for the making of sentient beings, whites. Critical practice must be intrinsically constitutive or directed towards demythologizing (which none other than a process of self purging) of racial significations that abound South Africa in toto. Much as for Cabral, the bourgeoisie must commit class suicide, any swing at power (literary and figuratively), in an anti black structure, for whites must first paradoxically function as a masochistic act of ontological self-disavowal. Put differently criticism is none other than black grammar of suffering. Or critical theory is none other than a form of criticism of standard critical theory, or as Lewis Gordon puts its: “Blackness, in all its metaphors and historical submergence, reaches out to theory, then, as theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself.” If there be any attempt to make ‘action’ is by first exposing art criticism and theory’s unabated anti-black performative strength.

To conclude! If there is any logic in the plea for “thinking criticism” it is the acceptance and adherence, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, is that the black “oppressed class is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden."


1 But we must not confuse this with Brecht’s criticism of Lukacs’ idea of the novelist, as “bourgeois.” We of course know, Lukacs and Adorno were rather conservative in their almost Platonist pheripheralising of ‘other’ artistic practices – Lukacs (film, theatre), Adorno on Jazz, television etc. Chad’s criticism is not this criticism, I argue.

2 Of course today and yesteryears aren’t systemically different but today there is a qualitative difference of the organization of things, which can render the situation more opaque and mysterious than before.

3 See Russian art collective, Chto Delat’s manifesto.