transform critique: create

Cathy Davidson writes about HASTAC's new motto: Create. Critique. Transform. The motto starts from HASTAC's longstanding goals, which she describes as "(1) creative development of new technologies (2) critical thinking about the role and use of technologies in learning and society and (3) new forms of learning that arise from those tools and from the practice of critique." However, as she continues, HASTAC has come to recognize a new, more activist mission:

to transform institutions for a digital age.   That is, if the institutions of school and work that we have inherited have evolved and been developed over the last 150 years to inculcate the values and practices of the Industrial Age, how to we radically transform those institutions to be more suited to the networked, global, interconnected, self-starting, DIY worlds of the digital age?   If the Industrial Age was all about separation–home and work, leisure and work, family and work, boss from employee, manager from line worker, white and blue and pink collar workers, scientists from humanists and on and on and on–then the institutions of work and school that we have now are about separation of knowledge and learning into very discrete and divided tasks, always taught from on high by an expert in that particular specialized form of learning.   How do we radically transform those institutions now for peer-learning across areas, where expertise might be gained by doing rather than by credentials, where learning is also about unlearning and changing, and where we must acknowledge that one person's expertise is also that one person's blind spots—so we need to work together, to collaborate in ways where our differences matter and work together.

I borrow this long passage from that post in part because I fundamentally agree with Davidson's assessment of the situation. Although it is articulated here as an objective, as an activist agenda, to me the situation is painfully self-evident. Education in the last century was shaped by the conditions of that century. Now we have new conditions.

HASTAC's new mission is much like the old: the first two parts being the same. Only now, the third part has shifted to recognize that "new forms of learning" will require institutional transformation. As my title suggests though, I think it has to go a little further. I would argue (and indeed have been arguing here and elsewhere for some time), that part of the institutional transformation is the transformation of critique. Obviously "critique" is a slippery word. In the humanities we use it a lot, as if we were confident in its meaning, but I don't know that we are.

First, I think it is important to note that the word "critique" comes into use in the early 18th century to refer to an essay or article that criticizes an artistic or literary work (thank you OED). More interestingly, this usage of the word, "More generally, to judge critically, to make a critical assessment of or comment on (an action, person, etc.), not necessarily in writing. Chiefly U.S," only comes about in 1969. From this perspective, we can begin to build an understanding of critique as an activity connected to a particular set of historical moments. Specifically critique is a function of essay-writing technology, and it is only in quite recent history that critique has expanded beyond writing.

Second, while in general terms critique might be synonymous with analyze, review, or criticize, in the humanities (English Studies anyway), critique is tied to specific theoretical methods. Without dwelling on the matter here today (since I and many others have discussed it elsewhere), these methods are also heavily textual, either dealing specifically with texts or insisting on seeing the world as textual/discursive. 

Third, and finally, however one uses the term, critique is a negative activity. One can critique the status quo, but without some other move, some new positive direction, there is nothing to do but stay on the existing path. Similarly one can critique new ideas, but that also leaves one with the status quo. Critique is a largely conservative intellectual exercise, which is why it has operated so successfully in the humanities for centuries, since the humanities are largely aimed at conserving cultural traditions. Indeed the process of "Create" then "Critique" is precisely the status quo of the humanities. We critique other people's creations.

How can we possibly transform higher education by continuing down the path of create then critique?

Basically what I'm trying to say to HASTAC is that if the objective is to transform the institution from its 20th century operation, then that cannot be done through "critique." Yes, clearly some intellectual activity is necessary, but critique is not the word I would use. Besides it just really serves as an out for the scholars and disciplines HASATC's activism targets. When HASTAC says "critique," it says to scholars they can just keep doing what they've always done… and I don't think that's the point. Transforming the institution begins with transforming (or even abandoning) "critique" for some new intellectual mode. As Latour has suggested, critique has run out of steam. And it's an apt idiom because critique really is an operation of that first, steam-driven industrial revolution.

So I would suggest to HASTAC that we need to transform critique into a productive enterprise. That does not mean abandoning processes of investigation, analysis, or questioning. But it does mean that the end result ought to be creative. So perhaps we could say Question. Transform. Create.

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