Two nights ago (Feb. 10, 2021), I attended Dr. Larisa Reznik’s lecture on “Critique, what is it (still) good for,” the Religious Studies Stauffacher lecture hosted by Pomona College. Reznik elegantly mapped what I can only call an affecognitive genealogy of critique, examining “the mess of critique-talk” (Reznik) not only concerning what is critique is, the limits of critique, the relation of critique to secular/ity, and even when is critique, but also theorizing the felt orientations of critique–its attitudes and styles, and its attending affects of resistance, seduction, and maybe something like hope.
It was my sixth or seventh zoom of the day, and it was early evening for me on the East coast, so my notes are jagged marks attempting to capture what slid away from me in my exhaustion and digital distance (sigh). But it was such a rich occasion for thought!
As happens regularly on Zoom when I’m trying to meet with my Chair or Dean, Dr. Reznik’s Zoom interface would occasionally break up and freeze. Of course, all of us in the “audience” anthropomorphized the interface, haltingly calling out to Larisa that she was breaking up, that she had frozen. The catechresis is instructive, I think, especially in these COVID days when (really) there is too often too little material difference between our engaging with persons and engaging interfaces. Nearly a full year into this pandemic isolation, and with a weariness frustrated by the just-over-the horizon release promised by the vaccines, we professors are used to collapsing the interface into the person. Even though the simulation is never not dissatisfying, it has pressed itself into normalcy. We hold office hours and seminars. We get done the work of departments. We hold colloquia and host lectures.
But while face-to-face interactions are open to innumerable complications, we do not usually experience a person’s speech–out of sync with their image–as breaking up, stopping, or running fast. We do not usually experience a person who freezes in mid-sentence. With Zoom, we do. And when this happens, the Zoom interfaces will often tell us, as Dr. Reznik told us, “your internet connection is unstable.”
Indeed. I left the lecture for dinner and bed, but not before leaving a comment that this Zoom message might stand as a metaphor for critique that only this year of Zoom could teach us. Maybe critique is something like one’s social network becoming repeatedly unstable. Maybe critique is the courageous practice of pausing when the interface crackles, if only to give sufficient time for noticing it. Our network is unstable, again and again, and we learn to consider unexpected possibilities that might happen during the interruption of the expected.
I’m still pondering Deborah Cook’s book, Adorno, Foucault and the Critique of the West. In it, Cook notes Foucault’s investment in the word autonomy. It’s not an investment I’d really like to dwell on, but the words and experience of Reznik’s lecture gave me an oblique angle into considering it newly, from the interstices of a frozen interface. Autonomy in Foucault is not a separation from one’s context or a mastery over it, but a kind of self-reflexivity or self-(un)folding. It’s a practice on the self that wends its way against or other than the expected practices of our society of norms. It is a modality of being, an attitude, that trains a subject in practices of freedom. Critique orients a subject to the repeated instabilities of her social network for the sake of the live wires of possibility, the lived practices of autonomy.