I recently read this fantastic piece about the recent critiques of Lorde and the racial implications of her song Royals. I don’t really want to hash out the arguments for and against the song. I’m not really a fan of Lorde – I’ve heard the song a lot and find it catchy, but not necessarily great music. I think the overt class critique in the song is interesting in the context of increasing cultural critique coming through music. At the same time, I agree that the racial coding of the song is problematic at best. However, the specific critiques of this song and the responses to those critiques are not what concerns me here. What really interested me about the post was the discussion of cultural critique and its uses and purposes in our world. The author begins:
It begins with a question, one rarely asked and so rarely responded to. Neither articulated nor answered, the question persists as an inchoate feeling for and vague orientation toward another. If we were to give voice to this question, to make it explicit, we would thematize the mystery of this orientation, this feeling-for-another that puts us in hesitant proximity with one another. The question might be phrased as “Going my way?”
In other words, we’re concerned with an orientation. Which way are you going, and can we walk together on this path? The author is taking an anarchist perspective, but it nevertheless applies to all social circumstances. There is no ground. There is no fundamental orienting principle along which we all can align, no common goal towards which we are all struggling. Instead, there are only the fragile and unstable associations of people groping their way through a twisted, dark, and dangerous world. So what we have is each other, working together to orient one another and ourselves. So the question is whether we are walking together or against one another.
This is where critique comes in. Critique is a tool, like a compass – a way of orienting. The difference is, of course, that there is no magnetic north that attracts the compass needle. Instead, there is only the collective negotiations and navigations where critique is laid down, considered, responded to, and negotiated – and then the process is repeated perpetually as we make our way together through the world. Critique is engagement – it is a way of asking the question “Going my way?” A tool for assessing our inclinations and working together to navigate our path. But critique too easily slides into simple criticism. The author explains:
My worry is that we’re increasingly conflating the necessity of critique with the production of allergies, that critique has given way to simple criticism, that our critical performances are ultimately functional for liberalism’s pulverization of the political.
Criticism is not about building collectives capable of resisting the dominance of patriarchy, racism, classism, and all of the other oppressive forces with which we are face. Criticism is about pushing away, isolating, marking, and rejecting. It defines an individual by his/her actions – “you’re racist”, “you’re homophobic”, “you’re sexist” – rather than marking the actions as a way of orienting the individual – “that’s racist”, “that’s homophobic”, “that’s sexist”. Of course, there are those who are not inclined with us, those who are not “going our way.” And these are almost easier to dismiss. For them, critique is not the right tool, because their orientation is so far from ours – they’re using a different compass, different map entirely. But for those of us who are engaged in the work of building counter-dominance collectives, criticism can become caustic – eroding the already fragile connections of which these collectives are composed.
This is, of course, not to say that people like Lorde or Lily Allen should get a free pass. There is certainly something “fucked up” about the objectification and exploitation of people of color, women, and especially women of color in the culture industry. And to say “it’s not about race” is, obviously, completely to miss the point. But to emphasize the critique without also acknowledging the common inclination serves only to fragment and not to compose. That these kinds of critiques (of class and gender, at least) are finding their way through the culture industry’s maze is a miracle in itself:
We feel that we’re inclined toward one another, that we’re going the same way, and this basic affect/orientation makes non-allergic critique both possible and necessary. We imagine we’re going the same way even if we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things.
We all do and say terrible things – nobody is immune. Those who imagine they are are likely to be the least inclined with us. So what do we do when somebody with whom we are inclined does or says something terrible? More importantly, what do we do when they do it while, at the same time, critiquing something with which we are equally repulsed? We critique, of course. However, we do so without dismissing or pushing away, and recognizing that there are far worse things in the world more deserving of our criticism . Through our critique we seek an engagement – in some cases, directly with the individual and in some cases with others who might also be engaged with the content. But engagement is not unidirectional – in our critique, we have to put ourselves on the line as well. In fact, in many cases, it is through our critique that we become vulnerable to critique ourselves. If not, then we’re not doing it right. In the author’s words:
Critique can only be the antonym of collective corrosion when we recall that we’re going to get in one another’s way as we go on our way, together, maybe. Indeed, critique is a mode of collective augmentation when its animated by a commitment, however vague, to maintaining the world that we co-produce, that we’re on the way toward. So, let’s rewrite the dictum of Kant, the one he put in the emperor’s mouth, the one that serves as a mantra for liberals and Leninists alike, the one that goes, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but obey!” Let’s rewrite it as, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but incline!” Critique and critique hard. But never suppress the felt possibility that we, whoever we are, are going one another’s way.