Once an esoteric theoretical stance, the basic premises of the “school of suspicion” have now become commonplace, shared as they are across a range of ideological groupings and subcultures. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour asked what the popularization of suspicion means for the dominant modern intellectual project of social critique that arose out of the work of figures like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. As Latour puts it, social critique had been dedicated to combating “ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact.” However, he wonders whether the greater problem is now “an excessive distrust of good matters of fact,” a suspicion that all claims conceal “bad ideological biases.” His central example is climate science, whose typically right-wing critics allege that its supposed objectivity conceals particular interests — an argument not unlike ones made by left-leaning academic social critics.
Latour accordingly asks if there is a “real difference between conspiracists and a popularized … version of social critique.” After all,
in both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck, and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes — society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism — while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation.
All of this suggests that Latour’s title question, asking whether social critique has run out of steam, is partially misleading. Critique, in his account, has become vernacularized, and in the process its operations have not run out of steam but rather accelerated beyond the academy’s control. As he notes, for any major news story, “the smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account.”
He compares the work of the lone intellectual iconoclasts of the past — think of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — to the 1950s supercomputers operated by technical experts. Today, by contrast, average people can perform the operations of radical critique as easily as they can use the miniaturized computers in their pockets. Latour thus wonders whether his concern is just a “patrician spite for the popularization of critique.” But the condescension can also run in the other direction: As he remarks, “my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve” for accepting the U.S. government’s account of the 9/11 attacks.
On the other hand, Latour was right to see that traditional critique was running out of steam in academic circles — in part just because it had been vernacularized, as the rise of the “red pill” metaphor suggests. For instance, an influential new approach that emerged in the early 2000s under the name “postcritique” pushed back against the instinctively suspicious sensibility that had long dominated many academic fields. Perhaps, like a luxury product that loses its allure from an abundance of cheap imitations, the intellectual capital to be accrued by demystifying and debunking and unmasking declined once it was embraced by the masses.
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