enough of the critique, at least some of the time? 

It’s holiday season. I’m away and having a tiny pause, a little reflect. Apologies to those of you who are seeking writing about writing. I sometimes do other things. Writing about writing will be back soon. 

This week I’m musing. 

How do we manage critique in these times? No I don’t mean how to do it, that’s an easy question to answer. I mean how do we live a life of critique? As the world hurtles further into an appalling and terrifying mess, bearing out the sociological  theories of risk society, runaway world and liquid modernity, I find myself perhaps paradoxically questioning critique. 

How  to continually focus on all of the things that are ghastly, frightening, inequitable and unjust about the world? We social scientists can’t ignore it. But it’s just that I feel, and this may be just me, that I can’t keep doing critique all the time. And I don’t know how to maintain a sense of optimism in the face of all the wicked and evil goings on. Nor am I sure, any longer, about how not to get worn out by the sheer  scale of the things to get angry about. 

How to critique and not feel enervated, profoundly powerless? 

Photo credit:  Ze’ev Barkan

I’m clearly not the of the same makeup as, for instance, a restaurant critic.

Jay Rayner’s justification for his evening of music and gags “My dining hell” is that people just prefer the negative to the positive. Audiences would never come to a show called ”My dining heaven” he argues.

For those of you who don’t know Jay Rayner, he’s the food critic for The Observer and well known for his biting reviews. He can’t bear restaurants that pay more attention to the décor than the food, that seem to care more about the menu descriptors than the food, where the waiting staff pester unnecessarily. Raynor can’t abide food on slates and cocktails in jam jars. And if food chicanerie is accompanied by high prices, then Sunday morning may well see a restauranteur waking up to a story which says something like…

Ten minutes into our lunch at Tapas 37, the new restaurant inside the Ecclestone Square Hotel in London’s Pimlico, the fire alarm went off. It was a vast hacking noise like a goose with bronchitis. Our sweet, eager waitress ran down the narrow dining room flapping her hands while bellowing “It’s just a test” and rolling her eyes with a theatrical shrug, as if to say “What can you do?” Some might wonder why a hotel which has invested money in a new restaurant, including hiring a chef with some big restaurant action on his CV, would then schedule a fire alarm test for the lunch service. Personally, I can’t help but fantasise about how much better a day it would have been for all involved, had the fire alarm been real.

Raynor has just compiled a book of his bad restaurant reviews, also called My Dining Hell.  Why this title? Well, according to Raynor, we all love to read bad things. He says

.. nobody would want to read a bunch of my positive appraisals. But give them write-ups which compare the food to faecal matter, the decor to an S&M chamber and the service to something the staff of a Russian gulag would reject for being too severe, and then readers are interested.

Raynor argues that reading bad restaurant reviews is highly cathartic –  we readers can see that Rayner has been able to take revenge for all of the bad and over-priced meals and crap service that not only he – but also we- have endured. A bad review? He is simply doing it for us, Rayner suggests. But, of course, he also develops through both bad and good reviews a view of what a restaurant should do – serve food that is reasonably priced for what it is, in pleasant surroundings, with good service.

Rayner also observes that writing a negative review is easier than writing a good one – bad experiences are simply funnier, the vocabulary of the awful much wider. What’s more, he says, negative reviews are as much fun to read as they are to write. The critical is simply more entertaining all round. That’s because, he argues, people just like the negative more than the positive…it’s a human characteristic. 

Really? It’s our ‘nature’ to prefer the negative? It’s universal? The same for everything?

Of course the difference between Raynor’s world, and the one that we social scientists turn our critical attention to, is that the world we work on and write about actually is really awful.  And just a bit more significant than a dire night out in the company of the appalling three course meal.

My own research agenda focuses on education systems that humiliate and exclude. Pedagogies that marginalise and penalise. Lives and opportunities thwarted and reduced as a result. The systems have to be named, called out and challenged. But now, this agenda is overtaken by global crises and catastrophes. The often awfulness of mainstream education pales besides the killings of people, species and land/water/air.

But I recently re-read some words from Brian Massumi. He writes about the differences between critique and what he calls writing that is inventive, that adds to the positive of and in the world. He says:

It is not that critique is wrong. As is usual, it is not a question of right and wrong – nothing important ever is. Rather it is a question of dosage. It is simply that when you are busy critiquing you are less busy augmenting. You are that much less fostering. There are times when debunking is necessary. But, if applied, in a blanket manner, adopted as general operating principle, it is counter-productive. Foster or debunk. It’s a strategic question. Like all strategic questions, it is basically a question of timing and proportion. Nothing to do with morals or moralising. Just pragmatic. ( p 13).

Balance critique with augmenting. Deconstruct and reconstruct. Argue against and also offer an alternative. Keep reservoirs of hope alive. Sometimes of course, rage must be forefront and maintained. But sometimes it’s also good to consider what might be done differently. Use the critique to augment. Well that’s Brian’s theory. 

And I think mine,  most of the time.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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9 Responses to enough of the critique, at least some of the time? 

  1. francesbell says:

    Pat – you can’t possibly know (unless we bump into each other for coffee sometime) how useful this post is for me. I had made a decision for a change of direction recently (one of the joys of independence) and Brian Massumi’s words help explain to me why that change was necessary 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Colin M says:

    Thanks for this, Pat. Specially the Brian Massumi. It was just what I needed after a rather rebarbative Labour Party constituency meeting last evening. We can augment and foster as well as critique! Also-I am encouraged to go to the Tate!


  3. Emma says:

    I was just reading Bruno Latour’s article ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ which reflects on the critical impulse of deconstruction and comes to a similar conclusion (with some help from Heidegger): “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and postivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile, and thus in great need of care and caution. I am aware that to get at the heart of this argument one would have to renew also what it means to be a constructivist, but I have said enough to indicate the direction of critique, not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.”

    Interesting stuff for self-reflection about what critics do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Pat. Your timing for this article could not have been better. Timing and proportion…and reconstructing as well as deconstructing. Yes! I’ll be looking for the Latour piece too.


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  6. Pamela Mounter says:

    Goodness, my hero Bourdieu has feet of clay. Marvellous and thank you Pat and Victoria. Facts are an issue (who was it who said: When the facts change I change my opinion) and also, I suggest, there is the issue of it being so much easier to criticise than construct. Hurray for Brian Massumi.


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