Thursday, June 24, 2010

Critical blogging, self-wrongeousness

Here's an illustration of some of the problems of reflexive self-identity, how it can corrode perfectly noble ideals when those ideals seem to become Lego bricks for self-fashioning, even when we don't want them to be. The sense that others might accuse us of strategic affectations of ideas makes us debilitatingly self-conscious about it, and that self-consciousness makes the accusation seem more true, making our prose stilited and false, riddled with tentativeness and guilt.

From a Tiger Beatdown post by Sady Doyle. It's in part a critique of the subject position one ends up adopting when conducting a certain kind of critical discourse, and the dangers inherent in that posture when combined with a medium like blogging, which is read as inherently personal and self-revelatory. Basically, "critical blogging" carries with it the risk of coming across like a self-aggrandizing douche; the subject matter can end up subordinated to one's one identity -- the brand of the blog. The arguments made therein become banners waved to demonstrate some notion of personal cool. (I worry about this a lot myself; my inadequate solution tends to be to avoid most forms of feedback.)

Here is the crux of Doyle's rigorous self-criticism:
I mean, I’m talking about myself here. You get that, right? I’ve borrowed too much from other people, and haven’t bothered to check those arguments before incorporating them, because they were popular or persuasive; I’ve oversimplified things I was supposed to be critiquing, for the sake of making a point; I’ve rationalized and politicized my tastes and personal dislikes and bad personality traits, to make myself seem like a better person or a better feminist, and at some points I’ve thought — probably, God knows, even said — that “good person” and “good feminist” were one and the same thing. Maybe you’re better than me; maybe you’re pure. But it’s a problem, with any moral system of thought: At some point, we learn what we’re rewarded for saying, how we’re rewarded for seeming, and then we say those things and seem that way, for the reward. It’s like any other set of social norms. But when feminism is used this way, not as a means to get into truth, but as a means to make truth easier or even to avoid it, it’s really not all that different from, say, reading a lot of Ayn Rand. Granted, the results of its clueless or selfish application will probably be better than what the Objectivists have managed thus far. But it’s still something you do for you, rather than for the sake of doing it; it’s a means of propping yourself up. Of self-glorification.

In a sense, this is a recasting of the observer problem -- how do we pursue Truth without biasing our results with our own imperfections and biases and purely personal and contingent desires. We get in our own way, and we know it -- thanks to the way we are situated in a mediated culture that (in my view) forces upon us a morbid self-awareness and insecurity. And thus we come to doubt our own motives, we become cynical about our own projects even as the cynicism increases our need to believe desperately that something is worth doing. The question then is how to lose ourselves yet retain autonomy, a sense that we are still guiding our own inquiries?

She continues:
It’s especially bad news when we do this on the level of personal narrative. Which is where we get back to me, to the person I’ve agreed to be while I take part in this conversation. Because, at this point, I have to acknowledge that the extent to which I deplore this way of engaging has to be measured against the extent to which I’ve participated in it. Or contributed to it. Or caused it. Every time I yell at some pathetic anonymous commenter and people cheer, every time I get all righteously outraged without talking about what I’ve done that is the same or worse as what the person I’m outraged about has done, every time I play the toreador and gore a bull for your entertainment, I shudder a little. Because I’m helping it happen: Aiding in the creation of a discussion where we reward outrage and scorn and hatred and Othering of the ideologically impure, the bad feminists and unfeminists and anti-feminists, all the while pretending to a purity that none of us, living in this our inherently compromising and mindfucking world, actually possesses. I’m glorifying myself; I’m letting you glorify me; I’m giving you a false impression of how things actually work, letting you believe that the world consists of Good People and Bad People. I’m telling you that I am Good, and that you are Good to the extent you agree with me, and that people — other people, people on the outside of this discussion, not us, certainly — are Bad if they disagree with us. I mean: This is basically how every terrible thing in the history of humanity has started, the decision that there’s an Us and a Them and the former is good and the latter is bad. Doing it in the name of lofty principles doesn’t mean you’re not doing it; it just means that when the problems — the self-falsification, the repression, the insistence on ideological purity rather than self-examination or originality or thought — creep up on you, you’re less likely to notice them and more likely to rationalize them. Because your aims really and truly are good.
This is the cult-of-personality problem, in which the mission gets conflated with the missionary. This is why "rigorous self-criticism" exists as a Marxist cliche; it's an effort to recalibrate the goals with the means of pursuing them, trying to assure that bourgeois individualism and selfishness hasn't intruded. But how does one prevent this conflation when it seems a primary ideological tactic employed within our culture to neutralize and invalidate critique? Criticism is blunted at the ad hominem level, by claiming the critic is a hypocrite or by pointing to how much glory the critic seeks for herself. (Adorno, somewhere, gets at this point.) It's easy to rub a writer's nose in their ego and prompt their self-flagellation. People makes mistakes, they change their minds, they get lazy, they rely in received arguments, they go too fast, and often there seems like there is a good reason, or maybe there isn't a good reason. But none of these should be sufficient to silence critique or invalidate it when taken as a whole, as a praxis, as a good-faith hermeneutic. None of that is a reason to react by embracing relativism either.

The reflexivity imposed on us by the "conditions of modernity," as Giddens puts it, has a tendency to render us passive and encourage us to seek answers to social problems in the purely personal. It presents a trap beyond the trap of self-righteousness: the trap of self-wrongeousness, that sees self-critique as an end
in itself.

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