I have been thinking a lot about Latour’s 2004 article, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” in Critical Inquiry. In rhetoric and tech comm it is an old article, not yet a venerated ancient text but old enough to be talked about as a historical trend (which raises a whole slew of other questions that can be addressed later). In it Latour talks about the limits and potential danger of critique in, what was then, the coming “post-truth” age.
He wonders if critique and constructivism have helped to usher in that age. Certainly, modern academia has dealt with that accusation for quite some time. By showing how facts and truth are constructed, socially or otherwise, it is suggested that we undermine a universal faith in that truth. We do. We should. Indeed, we are at our best when we are peeling back the veneer of truth and fact to reveal the deeper relationships involved. Yet, it is difficult to believe that critique, alone as it stands, is enough. For Latour, and I tend to agree, critique has its own adherents who take great pleasure in tearing down the social and technical structures in which we all live. In doing so, they reveal much, but they never offer an alternative. They disprove and walk away. As Latour himself says, “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them…” (231). For Latour, this meant a return to the primacy of Things and a movement away from a heavy, almost singular, focus on social construction.
We needed that push. Moving away from a singular form of critique has been incredibly useful in opening up new considerations in the rhetorics of science and technology. It has helped to develop new approaches in which social construction plays a part but not the whole. We can explore how people and things interrelate and build off one another. We can examine how systemic structures become objects in an of themselves extending beyond the human limits of their creation and yet still carrying with them the initial ideological biases that drove their birth. Critique has expanded and for the better.
But as I read and write, I find myself considering a nagging concern: what do we do with that expanded critique? Latour suggests that no one would want their cherished cultural objects to be subject to social critique and inquiry (240). To think that expanding such inquiry would somehow render that concern moot is patently false. We cannot remove ideology from our analysis of object interactions and say “We fixed it.” We haven’t, and honestly very few would go so far as to suggest such a course of action. In the end, I think the problem may be critique, itself. The “post-truth” age requires a “post-critical” approach. This is not a new claim, but it is something that has been weighing on me a lot in the past few months. I am not sure it is enough to point out the flaws. Certainly, that is important but without an approach that says “This is broken and here is how we fix it.” We remain in the same spot we always have been, tearing down the structures without offering any help.
Maybe that is why I am so attracted to pedagogy and teaching. When I teach, I am interested in helping students understand and use that knowledge. In preparing them not to be good critics, but to use critique to better understand, engage, and hopefully change their world for the better. I hear that a lot from many who, like me, are early on in their academic careers. The research we do is fascinating, but without that movement from theoria to praxis we end up going nowhere.
Of course, praxis has its own dangers most notably from those who critique. In some sense, all form are doomed to the limitations of their time and place. Critics will highlight the failures and the flaws of those practices. They should. If we are to be post-critical, we cannot ignore that critique. We should invite it. We should make it our ally. If Latour is right and the goal is to get closer to fact or truth, whatever that may be, then we need the power of critique. We cannot, however, succumb to the inertia of critique. We must learn from it and keep pushing ahead using our skills and our knowledge to make things better while acknowledging our own flaws, frailties, and limitations.