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Critical atmospheres: A transdisciplinary investigation of criticism as a contested social practice

I won’t get into the full details of the project here and now as it is all subject to change. However, I think that the introduction to my proposal gets to the heart of what I am interested in:

A film critic praises the cinematography of a recent blockbuster—this is criticism. A protester waves a placard denouncing the Prime Minister—this is criticism, too. A philosopher identifies the internal contradictions of a proposition—likewise. But what do all these things have in common, besides the semantic coincidence? Each of these actions express an evaluative, and potentially oppositional, judgement that operates by bringing its object into question. Stated abstractly, the objective of ‘Critical atmospheres’ is to better understand this quotidian mode of action, and its changing role within the contemporary world. To state this objective more concretely, however, I will need to be more analytically precise.

The words ‘criticism,’ ‘critique,’ ‘critical,’ and ‘critic’ are multivalent and deeply rooted elements of English and related languages. Together, they constitute a conceptual complex that I name ‘criticality.’ This complex has changed over time, has different significance in different situations, and is made meaningful in relation to a broader conceptual field that includes, for example, slander, satire, reproach, and denunciation. I name this broader conceptual field ‘discursive negation.’ Conceptual fields are relationally structured in their social significance. For example, where satire is protected under law, slander is prosecuted. While ‘critique’ is, archetypically, invested with reason, ‘calumny’ connotes only injurious falsity. However, such distinctions are prone to disruption—indeed, crisis. In the past few years, movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have, via new media technologies, transformed established convention regarding whose criticism counts. This has, however, gone hand in hand with widespread complaints that ‘cancel culture,’ ‘virtue signalling,’ and academic ‘critical theory’ are, in one way or another, undermining the standards of reason and civility that make liberal democratic politics possible. Meanwhile, the populist right increasingly makes insult, defamation, and conspiracy its modus operandi. This situation constitutes what I call a ‘crisis of critical judgement’—that is, a sustained disruption in the prevailing social norms governing the expression of criticism.

‘Critical atmospheres,’ thus, undertakes to achieve a more profound historical, philosophical, and sociogeographical understanding of criticality as it is related to the wider field of discursive negation, as it is implicated in the contemporary crisis of critical judgement, as it is made possible through structural conditions of communication, and as it is lived through atmospheric flows of affective incitement.

This is a very abstract outline but it captures the basic problems involved.

The main objective of the project will be to write a book, which I am provisionally titling ‘Critique of the Judgemental.’ This all builds on some of the work that I’ve already published. In particular:

I have another piece, forthcoming in Millennium, titled ‘Radicalism, Respectability, and the Colour Line of Critical Thought: An Interdisciplinary History of Critical International Relations,’ that also lays some of the historical background that this new project will be building on.

However, while IR has been my disciplinary home since my undergraduate degree, this Fellowship will take me into the world of human geography. From my perspective, this is not such a big change. My PhD thesis was, to a large extent, a work of historical geography that happened to be written and defended as one of international politics. However, this move is not just about realigning my interests with my career prospects (though there’s that too!). Rather, it is also about getting to think about the problem of criticism in broader terms than is generally attempted from within any one discipline.

Here’s how the introduction to my proposal continues:

To criticise, condemn, scorn, satirise, repudiate, or reproach the words and deeds of others—such practices are endemic to democratic politics. However, discursive negation is double-edged, possessing the capacity to both actuate and corrode democratic practice. ‘Critical atmospheres’ thus addresses matters of crucial contemporary political importance, simultaneously elucidating the conceptual and material composition of political controversy, and locating this controversy in embodied, everyday experience. In so doing, this project also constitutes an intervention into ongoing transdisciplinary academic debates.

To give only a partial sample: In anthropology, Catherine Walsh, among others, argues that academics have ignored the critical thinking of Indigenous peoples, while Irfan Ahmad traces a genealogy of Islamic criticism as a distinct and independent tradition of thought. In sociology, the school associated with Luc Boltanski has instituted a “sociology of critical capacity,” while Diana Stypinska, via Michel Foucault, traces a genealogy of Western critical thought, beginning from Greek antiquity. In human geography, Ben Anderson calls for a renewal of critique as a practice of inducing “crisis” in apparatuses of knowledge, while Mark Jackson argues for “decolonising critique,” recognising that it is “more than negative.” In political theory, Teresa Bejan articulates a conception of “mere civility,” derived from the seventeenth century minister Roger Williams, as a way of rebuilding liberal democratic discourse. Finally, Sara Ahmed presents “complaint” as a form of feminist critical practice.

Such debates are ‘transdisciplinary’ in that they share ideas, and respond to problems, that flow across disciplinary boundaries. However, my work is transdisciplinary in a stronger sense: it provides a theoretical framework, and undertakes empirical research, that shows not only that these various debates are related but also how they are related, embodying, as they do, different aspects of the wider crisis of critical judgement. In other words, my work connects these predominantly field-specific debates to a larger intellectual and political scene of conflict.

Debates about what it means to think, speak, research, or act ‘critically’ have flourished, across a whole variety of fields, over the past couple of decades—exponentially so in the past few years. This indicates, I believe, a far deeper political and ideational ferment than can be grasped at the level of any given disciplinary debate about the priorities and proprieties of its particular niches and traditions.

This is not, of course, to egotistically suppose that the funneling and focusing effects that disciplines produce can be transcended (by myself or anyone else). This is not what I mean by ‘transdisciplinary.’ Rather, the idea is to see academic disciplines as one set of more or less consequential epistemic processes among others, and to attempt, insofar as is possible, to plug these processes back into the rest of the world, instead of, as so often happens, discoursing amongst ourselves as though fields of academic knowledge developed through some sort of self-contained internal logic. In other words, it is to see specific disciplinary debates as local instantiations of a broader set of problems that go way beyond the academy: what I am presently calling, for want of a better phrase, a crisis of critical judgement.

It remains to be seen just how this admittedly ambitious plan will work out. However, I am very much looking forward to getting started!

2 replies on “Critical atmospheres: A transdisciplinary investigation of criticism as a contested social practice”

Dear Phillip,

I am so moved to hear about your new opportunity. I have followed your work for many years now and just a couple of weeks ago I reread your 2015 article “Back Down to Earth: reassembling Latour’s Anthropocentric Geopolitics.” A friend who is a first year law student with an undergraduate degree in IR found that article of great interest. I have no background in IR or geography, but with an additional 5 years of reading Latour, your article was even better on the third reading.

I also “read” your dissertation. Maybe in a few years and with a friend to read it with me, I can get my arms around this fascinating and groundbreaking work. In my opinion. I left university teaching in 1978 because of the lack of interdisciplinary work so it warms my heart to see your opportunity to continue your important work.

Don Utter

Hi Don. Thank you so much for your kind words, as usual! I think my research has changed quite a bit over the past few years but I am very glad that it can still be inspiring on some level. Hope you are keeping well.

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