Agents of chaos cast burning glances at anything or anyone capable of bearing witness to their condition, their fever of lux et voluptas.
~Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone
Consider this post a Call for Manifesters. At last year's Kalamazoo Congress, postmedieval sponsored a session titled BURN AFTER READING: TINY MANIFESTOS FOR A POST/MEDIEVAL STUDIES, and the proceedings were lively, comprising the following 2-page talks:
- Intentionally Good, Really Bad, Heather Bamford
- Waging Guerrilla Warfare against the Nineteenth Century, Matthew Gabriele
- Net Worth, Bettina Bildhauer
- The Gothic Fly, Shayne Aaron Legassie
- This Is Your Brain on Medieval Studies, Joshua R. Eyler
- We Are the Material Collective, The Material Collective
- Be Critical!, Ruth Evans
- De catervis ceteris, Chris Piuma
- History and Commitment, Guy Halsall
- Burn(ed) before Writing, David Hadbawnik
- Second Program of the Ornamentalists, Daniel C. Remein
- Radical Ridicule, Noah D. Guynn
- Field Change / Discipline Change: Asa Simon Mittman, Anne Harris (for The Material Collective)
- Institutional Change / Paradigm Change: Aranye Fradenburg, Eileen Joy
- Time Change / Mode Change: Will Stockton, Allan Mitchell
- World Change / Sea Change: Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz
- Voice Change / Language Change: Chris Piuma, Jonathan Hsy
- Collective Change / Mood Change: Julie Orlemanski, Julian Yates
I hate manifestos. They are so yesterday. Blast the manifesto! Its revolutionary impulse is, as James Simpson observes about a wholly different phenomenon and time period, to do with the desire for a clean break between then and now, a break in which the past is itself created “by being made very dark, wholly repellent, and sharply different from the brilliant new present.” I don’t believe in the revolutionary break or the brilliant new present, although I’m with John Ball, that things have to change: “God doe bote, for now is time.” The manifesto is always timely. So bless the manifesto! Whatever. I also hate the credo. I believe in things, but not in that absolute way.
I am going to make one point. Here’s my manifesto: be critical! Clearly, critical is an overdetermined and loaded term. I will speak for English medieval studies, but other disciplines -- philosophy, history, theology, cultural studies – understand different things by “critical,” and it has meant different things historically (from its early modern sense of “given to censuring” to Kant’s notion of distanciation) It is impossible to tease out its range of usages in my four minutes. Heidegger observes: “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” Deleuze urges that thought “has no other reason to function than its own birth, always the repetition of its own birth, secret and profound.” These are great manifestos but poor definitions of critical thinking. So where do we go?
Critical comes from “crisis,” and was originally a medical term: to do with the crisis of a disease. To be critical is not to administer the remedy for a pathological crisis: rather, critique happens right where an illness might go either way – the patient will either decline or improve. To be critical is, in its origins, a matter of occupying a particular space (the body) and time (of crisis), and a matter (potentially) of life and death, perhaps of living on, of surviving (and I want medieval studies to survive). And it is an affair both of the body and the body politic: criticism comes from, and comes with, politics and affect – as long as we understand that affect is not only visceral but also a cultural construction.
Critical refers to the disciplinary norm of English. None of us wants to be uncritical. But critical thinking is itself in crisis. On the one hand, we cry it up: we dutifully include statements in our syllabi that we plan to teach our students “critical thinking,” yet few of us explain what we mean by the term: it has become a pedagogical banality, revered as meaningful and yet utterly empty. Some waters here need seriously muddying.
On the other hand, critique (and here I am perhaps performing a dubious and uncritical slippage between related but different terms) is increasingly seen as something that academics and cultural theorists should abandon. Thus Graham Harman, in his 2002 book Guerrilla Metaphysics, advocates a style of philosophy that he calls “fascination” – in his words, “a kind of constructive thinking,” one opposed to critical/analytical thought, though not to philosophical thinking. Bruno Latour rails against critique – by which he means the various forms of demystificatory reading that came out of the Frankfurt School and that often go under the rubric “critical theory,” that is, a “dialectical critique of society,” arguing that it has run out of steam, that it is self-satisfied and sterile, despite its cultural power: “The Zeus of Critique,” says Latour, “rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert.” He wants a new kind of critic: “not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles … , the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.” For Latour (and I cannot do justice here to his subtle argument), critique’s relentless negativity, its iconoclasm, does not make anything new: “what performs a critique,” he says in the “Compositionist Manifesto,” cannot also compose.” Critique does not generate anything. It comes to a full stop.
The calls to re-examine critical practice in the humanities are also taking place within English: think of Eve Sedgwick’s proposal that we replace “paranoid’ reading with “reparative reading,” or the opposition identified by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best between surface vs. symptomatic reading.
This debate is way too polarized. Is the only choice that between debunking or fascination? Demystification or description? Critical distance or textual attachment? Paranoia or love? Over thirty years ago, Tom Shippey offered his diagnosis of the crisis of health in the body politic of medieval scholarship as the rush to publish in non-specialist journals because of the pressure of tenure. This rush, he argues, exhibits, in his words, “a lack of the eighteenth-century quality ‘candour,’” by which he means, above all, “the desire to see difficult issues cleared up without the introduction of debating points.” He continues: “The urge to have as many ‘publications’ as possible is fatal to candour,” fatal, that is to one’s sense of having reservations about an argument or a methodology. The perverse effects of this, he argues, include “a new definition of ‘scholarship’ as ‘familiarity with secondary material’, [and here I’m mindful of Bill Readings observation that “mere antiquarian erudition is not critical,”] [and – to continue with Shippey] a promotion of boldness over honest doubt.” I read Shippey’s “candour” and “doubt” here as versions of “critical,” even as I recognize that his terms are relatively unnuanced and I do not believe in the notion of the disinterested critic. But Shippey goes on to make a crucial point that is still highly relevant today: “learned literary journals … do not open texts up for other readers, they do not generate delight in literature.” Shippey and Latour make odd bedfellows, and have utterly different perspectives, but at stake for both is the notion of what reading – criticism – is for – and how best to do it.
The problem Shippey identified in 1980 – the professionalization of the discipline – has been both amplified and changed. The explosion of internet reading and writing – blogging, online journals, reviews, and comments – has transformed the field of medieval studies: it has massively increased the critical conversation and changed the rhythm of that conversation (in ways that we have scarcely begun to analyze), although arguably – given the relentless professional drive to demonstrate scholarly “impact” in terms of the perceived quality of the places where one publishes – it still leaves open the question of the extent to which these alternative venues for publication and critique are supplementary or complementary to learned journals.
We need to acknowledge the absolute strangeness of medieval texts – and the ways in which they are mute before our gaze. But we need more, not less, critique, and more, not less, historicizing, to explain these phenomena. We need to understand and analyze how those texts move us and why they continue to delight and surprise us, and for this we need to be critical.
 James Simpson, “Making History Whole: Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies,” Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England, ed. David Matthews and Gordon McMullan (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 17-30 (21).
 Letter of John Ball in Stow’s Annales.
 Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 6.
 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), 165.
 See further Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13-38 and Amy Hollywood, “Reading as Self-Annihilation,” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 39-63.
 Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, x.
 Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-48 (239).
 Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” 246, emphasis mine.
 Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History, 41 (2010): 471-490 (246).
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or: You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke UP: 2003), 123-152.
 Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21.
 Tom Shippey, “Medievalia and Market Forces,” TLS (6th June 1980), 647.
 Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996), 81.