Friday, May 26, 2017

Interlude: Criticism, Vulnerability and Care



As these will be the last days of this writing platform, and potentially my last work as a critic, I will allow myself a brief interlude of self-analysis.

I find that criticism is, far from the way it’s often perceived, a position of extreme vulnerability. There is little respect or understanding for the work, a proliferation of poor critical writing, and critical thought in general is fading from the public sphere and media - replaced with commodified clickbait and easy answers based entirely in positivism and rejection of dialectics. “They don’t read what I write: they buy what I write”, as a friend said to me recently. It’s a commonly rolled-out  narrative now: far from building communities that are capable of self-reflection, we are increasingly constructing ones which follow pre-held beliefs and biases, making it difficult for anyone who sees critical thought as an integral part of community-building, and making open conflict between ideologies inevitable. Opinion is the new criticism.

Vulnerability is, of course, relative. (As relative as the above narrative is subjective). And while I don’t dismiss my original statement entirely, spending time at Faki festival this year has somehow replaced it with answers in the form of better questions. For example, ‘what might a criticism that isn’t white (or un-white, anti-white, or alternatives) look like?’ There are other questions, too, that spring to mind, but again, as so often in this festival, I am limited here as to what I can ask and do (not a complaint), and although I can formulate these questions as kind of self-analysis, or not formulate them at all but feel them in a way beyond words, I suggest that it is not me who will do this asking.

Nevertheless, I am claiming here that change requires vulnerability. In this sense, the critic can be an agent for change, purely through an honest approach to their own vulnerability. The role of facilitator between audience and artist, as a leader of that reflection post-show, or discourse around a show, is repeated in a methodological way. The critic who does not deny their vulnerability facilitates this vulnerability in the audience. 

Of course, the critic is not alone in their vulnerability – it’s a part of performance, and precisely the energy which makes it function. Vulnerability is also close to violence. How do we make ourselves vulnerable, to undertake genuine exchange with one another, without taking advantage of the other’s vulnerability for our own gain?

The answer to this is probably contained in something like ‘care’ – where we look after each other, and respect one another’s vulnerabilities mutually, even whilst attempting critical thought (if that is deemed a necessity, which I advocate). Here, I feel I arrive late to a party that others have been attending for a little while – but my addition is an old and unpopular one: traditions of critical thought should be maintained and nurtured as well, I claim, in the midst of that care. In practice, this is difficult to maintain – especially on the basis of a dominant positivist philosophy in which criticism and negativity are read as one and the same. It’s not coincidental that art happens at the margins, and that this is also where the most oppressive rhetoric of aspiration is located.

Without going into great detail, being present at the festival only makes me more sure, that the need for critical thought, and adequate public discourses where the safety of participants is assured, is more urgent now than ever, with the objective of offering access to an *actual* plurality of voices and discourses. Of course, this is a long way away, and has suffered a few heavy blows recently in the politics of the Anglosphere, as a particular constellation of dominance re-asserts itself. It continues to be punished by culture mindlessly repeating the dominant power structure of the time. Those forums that do exist seem increasingly manipulated to engineer the worst possible outcomes – to manufacture the worst conflicts, for an audience increasingly disengaged, or engaged only by explosive conflict. There is much work to do on this front - and just as many possible evacuations from that work.

The opportunity to learn - and change – is still there, if we genuinely have the will. 

(And, yes - it's possible that, if I did strip the ideology away, this claim would be all that's left).

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