Good-enough criticism

Oh that’s perfect Edmund: you American puritans, you’re always inventing diseases. And one that singles out blacks, drug users and gays – how perfect! Michel Foucault, philosopher, criticizing novelist Edmund White, when warned about AIDS early on

Praxis. . .appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what is being criticized. Theodor Adorno, a very different philosopher

–For the policy analyst, being relevant means offering an alternative to what is criticized. But there are other ways for criticism to be good-enough, that is, above and beyond the usual kvetching. (And in case it needs saying, offering an alternative is of little use, when no one is listening or couldn’t care less.)

What’s good enough here? Criticism is relevant even when solutions are not in the offer, if the very idea of “offering solutions” would make bad messes worse. There is also the honorable march of permanent critique, which resists anything like aiding and abetting sanctioned modes for “acting practically.” And then there’s bearing witness, which can make silent criticism very loud (e.g., the Black Sash in apartheid South Africa).

It seems to me that that criticism is good enough when it provokes even if discourages, disturbs even when debatable, and sharpens attention even because it goes no further.

–An example. Science and economics have been much chastised as: religion (e.g., each with metaphysics); imperialist (e.g., colonizing the traditional “why” and “how” questions of the humanities); and for being “just” socially-constructed. Also, critiques of science and economics as Big Business stress their producing sufficient Bad as to shadow whatever the Good.

But any weaknesses in such criticisms can serve in the same instant as their strengths, and this isomorphism is too frequently ignored, when not altogether missed–or so it seems to me.

When focusing on downsides of science and economics, you needn’t be: denying the strengths each has; nor arguing that the blind-spots “cancel out” the strengths; nor saying something like the costs outweigh the benefits. I am saying that what works to the Good also works to the Bad and this happens irrespective of context more than supposed. As is well-known, digital surveillance technologies can be, at the same point in time, a source of harm (as in identity theft) and a source of care (as in medical monitoring during and after treatment). (In fact, think of “context” in large part as the contingent interplay of strength <–> weakness.)

–So too for complexity’s chief synonyms: difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing. It stops short to say the three spancel the analyst and hobble analysis: They are also the strengths of analysis and at the core of the analyst’s practice. To see the interchange between Foucault and White as anything less than really-existing difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing—MF was wrong! EW was right!—misses the force-field and torsion of blind-spots.

Good-enough criticism, I think, wants to admit this. It differs from the kind of criticism that wants to buttonhole people once and for all. It’s good enough because the other side of a criticizing “no” is “yes, but”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s