The Irony of Contemporary Criticism

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There is a general distinction in the social sciences between those who try not to think too hard about the firmness of the foundations upon which their knowledge is built, and those who delight in exposing the arbitrariness, or falsity, of those foundations. The former are sometimes considered as problem-solvers, the latter critical thinkers. One way to think about the difference is to say the problem-solvers are concerned with ‘brute facts’ of social life, and the critics believe that all such facts are ‘social facts’ - that there are no concrete facts that exist outside of our construction of them. Of course, such a distinction is not critical enough for the truest-to-form critics, but it does well enough to outline the broad contours of the debate. The principle complaint of the critics, while valid, is overplayed and not constructive - that the means by which problem-solvers ‘read’ the world are at once arbitrary (that is, there are other, equally valid ways of reading the world) yet consequential (in other words, how we read the world actually makes and remakes the world). I think this demonstrates a deep-seated unwillingness to turn the critical eye to the work of the critics themselves, because to do so would be injurious and slanderous to such a noble vocation.

Take for example the multitude ways of calculating company size, detailed nicely in an article by Anders Bylund at Ars Technica. Bylund goes through several different metrics used by analysts to estimate the size (and thus relative worth) of companies: market capitalization (‘market caps’), enterprise value, net cash equivalence, profits, etc. None of them produce the same ranking of largest companies, though many of the same offenders are near the top of the list consistently. The peculiar quality of many of the measures is that they’re entirely ‘ideal’ -- meaning that the describe a value which doesn’t exist and never really could exist. Market cap, for instance, ranks according to the value of all the company’s stocks sold at current market value. You obviously could never achieve this value, since a mass sell-off would: a) require some one to buy them all; b) change the market price of the stock. Such measures are measures of perception - attempts to bring into the light an otherwise opaque and uncertain quality by developing an acceptable technique and applying equally to members of the same class of entities.

The take-home message is that there is no one ‘biggest’ company and the ambition among problem-solvers to devise measures for such a quality are futile, misguided attempts at stabilizing a fundamentally indeterminate social ‘fact’ (indeed, the word fact is misleading since the point is that there is no ‘facts’, per se). This may seem a rather banal and self-evident observation, but the essence of many critical accounts amounts to saying as much about more obscure and complex social endeavours. Take risk analysis for example -- perhaps the unstated assumption of many economists and policy analysts is that it makes sense to calculate the risk of various uncertain future possibilities, a calculation intended to produce an ‘objective’ assessment of the likelihood and potential extent of ‘hazards’. Maybe these people really do believe they are determining the objective ‘truth’ of these things. Maybe Standard and Poors’ analysts really believe they can assess the ‘true’ value of financial assets and assign ‘real’ ratings. Maybe they do, but I suspect not.

It’s more likely, I would argue, that the vast majority of problem-solvers in the world do not stop to ponder the ontological and epistemological complexities, ironies, and contradictions that underpin their ‘knowledgeable practices’. By this I mean to say, I doubt many investors are committed to finding a better measure for determining the ‘one true biggest company’, or the ‘real risk’ of uncertain things. These people do not share the Platonic aim of some academics of knowing something by knowing its ‘true form’; they only care to devise means of knowing the world around them as best as possible so that they can take something of value from that exercise. And that is not to say that they are base materialists or empiricists or whatever philosophical position might be assumed in contrast to idealism; it’s to say that those distinctions are irrelevant to the task at hand for most people. Just because a ‘one true world’ doesn’t really exist doesn’t excuse the need to try to find one. Sure these practices have political consequences, sure they ‘make and remake’ the world in a particular and artificial way, but that is all there is - so why get caught up demonstrating other people’s widgets as inferior without trying to build a better widget yourself?

The irony of the critical position is that, in the rush to expose other peoples’ vocations as perpetuating a fiction (namely, that there could be a social truth) they must assume the validity of a distinction between truth and falsehood. It only makes sense to criticize someone for doing something false if you think there is more to the story - or that the story they’re following is silly, confused, or not as well thought-out as the story you’re telling. Criticism in this light becomes dogmatic pedantry - the incessant teaching of the way things really are, the unending exposing of conventions as political constructs, the quick and easy stripping of the emperors clothes. The work that people engage in is not always taken lightly, it’s not always labour - sometimes people are really trying to do something useful, and not necessarily by knocking down someone or something else. Sometimes they are really invested in it.

In a strictly abstract sense not all information is created equally, but so what? You need to prove that your information is better than the alternatives - the burden of proof is on the critic. Should this not be done according to similar if not equivalent criteria of value as used by the problem-solvers? But to subject noble criticism to the pedestrian aims of problem-solvers would be to violate its core tenets, running against its assumed truths. The irony of contemporary criticism is that it refuses to be ironical.