No Prophets, No Honor

On the declining vocation of the social critic


As the Internet Age of Austerity continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Theodor Adorno, Beverly Hills Traffic Cop

This might sound perverse, but to understand the crisis of cultural criticism in 2017, I’m going to start by taking us back to 1951, the year of the publication of that Adorno essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” that I mentioned above. Adorno was famously disapproving of most things—except perhaps serialist composition. And, given that cultural criticism is not a form of serialist composition, it should hardly surprise us that Adorno is pretty down on cultural criticism as well.

Adorno’s essay nevertheless attempts, first, to outline the proper function of the cultural critic. Second, he offers a brief history of the cultural critic’s role in bourgeois society. Third, he strives to show how, as this role has developed, cultural critics have been left unable to perform their proper function effectively.

Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience.

According to Adorno, cultural critics ought to be able to justify their existence in at least two ways. To begin with, they should be able to claim “a more profound knowledge of the object.” By means of intuition, experience, or expertise, cultural critics are able to claim an understanding of culture that their audience cannot, offering some special insight.

Next, Adorno tells us, the cultural critic should anticipate an implicit “promise of culture.” The critic, he posits, has “independence and autonomy”—an intellectual and moral separateness from the all-consuming, compulsive purposiveness of industrial society—which, again, is a capacity the audience is presumed to lack. This resonates with what Frankfurt School authors (from Horkheimer onward) have often envisaged as the ultimate purpose of critical theory: the emancipation of humanity from the various unfreedoms that characterize our social world. Cultural critics, in their work, perform this emancipation; they allow their audience, directly or indirectly, to catch a glimpse of a more liberated society.

On both counts—insight and emancipation—capitalism compromises the cultural critic. Despite whatever pretensions cultural critics might have about the autonomy of their intellectual labor, in truth they play an economic role analogous to that of any specialized professional. Just as any skilled worker makes a living by marketizing his or her expertise, so the cultural critic is obliged to marketize his or her thoughts.

According to the genealogy Adorno sketches, cultural critics were first of all “reporters,” orienting consumers in “the market of intellectual products.” They were useful to capitalist society because they told people what to consume, and how. “In this,” Adorno tells us, “they occasionally gained insight into the matter at hand, yet remained continually traffic agents, in agreement with the sphere as such if not with its individual products.” (One wonders if, in invoking this image, Adorno was drawing on bad memories of his 1940s exile in Los Angeles; perhaps this curmudgeonly German intellectual couldn’t help but attract the attention of the traffic cops teeming about his paradisaical prison.)

At any rate, by the time Adorno was writing, the cultural critic had received a promotion: after years of service as a traffic cop, he was now working as a “judge.” Cultural critics were now recognized as real authorities on cultural products, articulating not only how to consume them but why they are supposed to matter to us. The cultural critic was therefore afforded a genuinely important status (no matter what, Adorno quips, the “objective qualifications” of any individual critic might be). But this status came at a price: it firmly installed the cultural critic as part of the ruling element in society. The critic-as-judge, Adorno tells us, collaborates with culture as “its salaried and honored nuisance.”

Far from serving a progressive and emancipatory function, under this paradigm, cultural criticism will be much more inclined toward conservatism. This conservatism might be explicit—Adorno gives the example here of Paul Valéry—or it could be inadvertent: the involuntary shudder of the intellectual who makes a good living in print media from posturing as a revolutionary, for example, at the possibility of political changes that might cause the value of his pension fund to depreciate. Adorno himself is a good example of this sort of critic. Witness his clashes, later in life, with the radical West German student movement. Adorno went to great lengths to dismiss the student activists intellectually, but also literally—as in physically, from the Institute for Social Research, by calling the police. He would eventually die of a heart attack shortly after a group of female students retaliated by disrupting one of his lectures, draping flowers around his head and baring their breasts.

No Exit

Even if they wanted to, cultural critics probably could not escape the prevailing social tendency. “The spontaneous movement of the object,” Adorno tells us in his essay, “can be followed only by someone who is not entirely engulfed in it.” By remaining materially dependent on society, cultural critics find themselves to be “necessarily of the same essence as that to which [they] fanc[y] [themselves] superior.”

In the most technical passages of his essay, Adorno spells this out by distinguishing between what he calls “immanent” and “transcendent” social criticism. Traditionally, he writes, the cultural critic measured society and culture according to some “transcendent” standard that had little to do with the critic’s contemporary society and culture. Good examples would be abstract, mathematical laws of beauty or hippyish ideals of “naturalness.” This method, as Adorno points out, seems like it should be radical, since it need not have anything to do with the society the critic is calling into question. “The transcendent critic assumes an . . . Archimedean position above culture and the blindness of society, from which consciousness can bring the totality, no matter how massive, into flux.”

But in truth, Adorno tells us, this Archimedean position is “fictitious”: it is based on the delusion that individuals might step out from the society within which they were raised, into the eternal out-there from which said society can be criticized. In fact, transcendent standards are themselves the product of history—and will, therefore, inevitably reflect harmful developments within the society they are supposed to help us criticize. Thus, representing said standards as “transcendent” merely excludes them from real critical analysis. “From there,” Adorno says, “it is only a step to the official reinstatement of culture.” Consider, for instance, how readily hippy peace-and-love, back-to-the-earth primitivism might give way to survivalist Darwinism.

One way of overcoming this problem is to swap “transcendent” for “immanent” criticism. Immanent criticism assesses society and culture according to standards it explicitly affirms as its own. So for example, if our society holds that “All men are created equal,” but then uses the police to systematically brutalize members of certain ethnic minority groups, the immanent critic could hold the powers-that-be to account for this dissonance, skewering them with a shard of their own frozen bullshit.

The immanent method might, at times, be critically effective—at least to a limited extent. But in a world whose standards are as damaged and distorted as the practices they reflect, this method will, Adorno tells us, eventually be “overtaken . . . It is dragged into the abyss by its object.” This is why, according to Adorno, neither immanent nor transcendent social criticism is at all sufficient. His essay thus ends at an impasse.

If cultural criticism is going to be truly effective, then it must perform the trick of reading the signs and wonders within culture while nevertheless partially escaping it. Perhaps we even have—in the work of Walter Benjamin, for example—some examples of what a successful performance of this trick might look like. But how are we supposed to perform it? That is left—at least by Adorno—something of a mystery.

If in Adorno’s time cultural critics were compromised by their being “salaried and honored” in their role as society’s professional “nuisance,” nowadays they depend on society in a much more desperate way: to support them, piecemeal, in a financially precarious existence. Whether as traffic cop or judge, the cultural critic appears to have become a material irrelevance. The economy, of course, hardly needs any human being to traffic cultural products for it: that can be given over to Amazon’s “Recommended If You Like . . .” algorithms and Facebook’s user-data-guided ads. Meanwhile, as Tom Frank explored in the last issue of The Baffler, the role of cultural arbiter has been usurped by the figure of the “curator”—a term that has come to indicate anyone who arranges and presents objects, from fine art to news, in such a way as to give them the stamp of bankable expert authority.

In a purely academic way, all of this might be seen as an advantage: shorn of any additional material function, the cultural critic is now free to focus on being, precisely, critical. But such optimism would of course be naive, since in the Age of Austerity the critic’s material uselessness curtails his or her opportunity to earn a living, and makes the vocation’s obsolescence more and more likely each day.

The Socialism of Trepidation

Today’s cultural critics—when, if ever, they emerge—typically stagger out of the wilderness from either journalism or academia. In my case, it’s both—I have a PhD in philosophy and have taught as a university lecturer, but I currently make most of my money from writing articles for newspapers and magazines.

If cultural criticism is going to be effective, then it must perform the trick of reading the signs and wonders within culture while nevertheless partially escaping it.

My own career has made me all too familiar with the ways in which both of these industries succumb to the craven iniquity of austerity management. And what does austerity do? Well, it leaves people destitute and unemployed—in a word, precarious. Plenty of cultural critics, from Benjamin to Ellen Willis, have lived precarious lives, whether inflicted on them by National Socialism or Reaganite magazine editors, and sometimes even written about them. But today, accelerated conditions of general precarity—under which atomized workers are united solely on the basis that they might lose their jobs at any moment and be turfed out on the streets—engender a culture of conformity through fear. This socialism of trepidation is likely to prevent the cultural critic from heralding a more emancipated world; like any other worker, critics are left unable to act except in their capacity as prisoners. Moreover, it threatens to obscure critics’ outlook on their own unfreedom.

In a journalistic context, precarity disincentivizes the cultural critic from ever engaging in the sort of careful thought, nurtured through meditation and—crucially—sufficient time, that is most likely to lead to genuinely insightful writing. Most critics, nowadays, are employed as freelancers, but even the best-paying outlets offer too little for op-ed pieces, or on too irregular a basis, to support a freelance critic who doesn’t publish at least something every week. And of course, these pieces must fit the demands of the intended publication; even the most generous, sympathetic editors are obliged to shackle the expression of their critic’s thoughts at least within the confines of a word count.

In academia, by contrast, precarity discourages anything but the most careful, and thus the most conformist, sort of thought. To finally be saved from the underpaid, energy-sapping grind of part-time teaching jobs, one needs to be hired into a tenured position. To do that, the prospective instructor must appear a safe bet to a hiring committee, in particular by publishing in the “right” peer-reviewed journals. These journals place their own demands on their authors’ expression: their ideal article is of a uniform length, is written in uniform academic prose, and advances the state of “the existing literature” to a uniformly incremental degree.

Another important factor, at least where I live in the United Kingdom, is how desperately underfunded most humanities departments are. New permanent hires must typically demonstrate the potential to bring in external research funding, but no grants exist for those marching out of lockstep with the culture industry (or science, or whatever). There is plenty of money around nowadays for philosophers who want to work on the future of humanities-destroying technologies such as AI. But the money is coming from tech gurus who want to rope in some sap “ethicist” to help them justify the total technological administration of our day-to-day lives.

Of course, some cultural critics are lucky enough to avoid all of this because, for whatever reason, they are not subject to the demand to sell their labor for a wage. Historically, a lot of very important philosophical figures have been born into wealth, perhaps deriving the strength of their originality from the fact that they never really needed to work for anyone else. Plato, at the very founding of western philosophy, was from one of the richest aristocratic families in Athens. Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer both lived off money they had inherited from their fathers, wealthy merchants. Bertrand Russell was a hereditary British peer whose grandfather had been prime minister. His student Wittgenstein’s father had once been among the richest men in Europe.

But even for the brilliant, such detachment can obscure as much as it is enables. Independently wealthy individuals have all the time and comfort they need to criticize society, and yet, having been coddled from its worst excesses since birth, they tend to be blind to them. This might manifest itself in something like Plato’s patrician authoritarianism, for instance. Kierkegaard, for his part, was a dedicated and in many ways extraordinarily insightful social critic: in particular, his Two Ages literary review diagnoses the sources of political apathy in liberal democracies in a way that continues to resonate profoundly today. And yet, as Adorno remarks in his study Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, Kierkegaard’s solution to everything—retreating into private, religious inwardness—betrays his bourgeois roots, his exclusion from the necessary grind of the capitalist economy. Only someone who was always able to fall back on his trust fund could have ever thought that spontaneous, individual emancipation from a bad social world was truly possible.

The Abyss of Culture

Like Adorno in the 1950s, today we can imagine two sorts of cultural critics: immanent and transcendent ones. But rather than representing a methodological choice, this dichotomy is largely a product of their socioeconomic positions. The immanent critics will remain the most common, or at least they will have the voices that can most readily be heard: they are the journalists and academics caught up in the system, and thus able to see its conditions for themselves. But the struggle that is the very source of their insight stifles their ability to express its truth—they will shortly be dragged into the Adornian abyss.

The transcendent critics, by contrast, will be positioned somehow outside of the system. They will be independently wealthy, or at least they will have a secondary source of income; they will have leisure enough to contemplate a presumed totality, and they will not need to sell their insights for a fee. But the privileged position they occupy will inevitably blind them to the object they are attempting to examine. And even if they do manage to say something of interest, it is unclear to me how anyone would ever be able to hear them: the truest of the transcendent critics must necessarily deny themselves the bullhorn of media or specialist-institutional channels.

Cultural criticism only functions properly if it is able to partially escape its object. But today, society has conspired to close off all escape routes, hermetically sealing itself off in a vacuum. From either inside or out of it, today’s cultural critics must work by struggling to breach this divide—or else find themselves spluttering and choking for air.

Tom Whyman is an academic philosopher and freelance writer from the United Kingdom.

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