The Declining Vocation of the Social Critic

BafflerTom Whyman explores the decline of the social critic in the recent issue of The Baffler. He starts his piece by decrying much of what today passes for social criticism.  Warning: Whyman pulls no punches:

AS THE INTERNET AGE OF AUSTERITY continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Read the rest here.