Public and private in the act of criticism

A few days go, I posted a thread on Twitter:

I just want to pick up on and expand upon one point:

I’ve been thinking about the significance of a public/private separation in the practice of criticism. Particularly, oppositional and problematising criticism.

There are certain varieties of intellectual criticism (academic or otherwise) that take any positive, affirmative, or approving sentiment to be, by definition, ‘uncritical’—that is, not only ‘not negative’ but unthinking, unscrutinising, even capitulating. This attitude was articulated perhaps most unapologetically by the infamously pessimistic Theodor Adorno, for whom the casual concept of ‘positive (i.e. constructive) criticism’ was tantamount to an ideology of cowed ignorance.

By contrast, as I mention in the thread, there is another tradition of ‘continental’ thought, particularly running from Friedrich Nietzsche through Gilles Deleuze, that eschews negativity for positivity, and no less exclusively. I’ve written a bit about the parallels between Adorno and Deleuze here. They seem to me to have shared many diagnoses but derived more or less exactly opposite conclusions. 

So, more generally, I’m interested in the oppositional divergence of positive and negative, and what that means for contemporary modes of thought. Something that I took from Olivia Rutazibwa’s writing is the consummate ease with which ostensibly ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ sentiments and analyses are combined. The beautiful and the horrible coexist, intertwine, and that is the ‘critical’ problem, not something to be swept away by ontological fiat.

Did Adorno despise or mistrust everything? Not at all. But any praise, enjoyment, or approval had no place in his criticism. This is perhaps what distinguishes cultural criticism—the craft of the art, film, or literary critic—from the ‘critique’ that Adorno and others derived from ‘critical theory’ (a term which, prior to their adoption of it in the 1930s, implied cultural criticism from a broadly Kantian point of view). 

I see this as a kind of public/private distinction. You can wax lyrical over the bravura harmonies of your favourite recording artist over dinner but, when you sit down to your writing desk, you are limited to explicating their (perhaps heinous, perhaps banal) ideological presuppositions. This is an unnecessary sort of asceticism, as I think Rutazibwa’s narrative shows.

There is very much more to be said on this before I can articulate my account of critical practices, as I am coming to formulate them. However, I think this makes a good start in terms of encapsulating the sort of direction that I am going in.

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