Critique: Meanings, Methods, Contexts

In 2004, sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour ushered in the ‘postcritique era’ with his highly-influential question: “Why has critique run out of steam?”[1] In the article, he argues that critique has become too abstract and scattered, and has therefore lost relevancy. Even more dangerously, he warns of the ways that critique has and can be misappropriated, such as in the development and dissemination of conspiracy theories. Ultimately he calls for a refocusing of critique around a positive, constructive notion of discussion and advancement. It is within this and the following context that the Editorial Team of On_Culture is proud to present Issue #7 Critique: Meanings, Methods, Contexts.

Performing Critical Voice

On the Relationship of Citizenship, Belonging, and the Articulation of Contemporary Critiques


The current age of migration and mobility has seen a rise in right-wing conservatism and renewed nationalisms, against which social and cultural movements have formed strong oppositions across Germany. Creative strategies yielded new resilience and turned the focus of debates towards new forms of democratic citizenship and new ways of signaling belonging. Shaped by the evolution of divided communities, the production of culture has become one of the few vehicles through which effective and diverse critiques can be articulated in a manner accessible to people of different backgrounds.

This account explores how the production of culture has been complicit in molding empowered speakers and critical voices from excluded communities. Drawing on my 2017/18 ethnographic study of the German brass ensemble “Banda Internationale”, this paper examines what can be learned about the formation of critical voices through music-making. I allude to the processes and practices involved in constituting a critical voice in music production, performance and activism; discuss how the practices in the band relate to the fundamental principles of immanent critique; and raise the issue that questions of citizenship and belonging are, without exception, rooted in the analysis of how voicing critique becomes possible in a climate that resists and prohibits the diverse articulation of subjectivities.

Robert Walser’s Topicality and the Descriptive Turn


The article examines the relation between the sudden rise of public interest in the Swiss writer Robert Walser at the turn of the millennium and the simultaneous emergence of Latourian-inspired methodological discussions in the field of literary studies. In light of the striking commonalities between Walser’s literary practice and Bruno Latour’s research strategy, the article claims that Latour’s project should not just be conceived as a possible source of inspiration to the humanities but as a configuration deeply enmeshed in aesthetic devices from the very outset. Furthermore, the great fascination of Walser among contemporary writers and readers stems from the fact that his writings offer new ways of reading that are exempted from the duty of suspicious interpretation and structure-building efforts, highly relevant to the current deadlock regarding critique in literary studies, but also owing to Latour’s undoing of the divide between art and science in academia as such. How we are encouraged to meet a text does not leave unaffected how we tend to meet the world, the attentive and descriptive low-key attitude practiced by Walser potentially boosting Latour’s call for an extensive transformation of matters of fact into matters of concern.

Performing Critique

Queer Video Games as Critical Method


Against the backdrop of a growing concern for the fate of critique in the current era, queer video games such as tranxiety, Dream Daddy and Gone Home have begun to engage players in the process of critically examining their own assumptions and immersing them in a performative critique, particularly as it relates to non-normative lived experiences. Alongside exploring whether these games are ‘merely’ the result of critical game design, such that players are enlisted to perform critique, or if queer play is more than a prescribed behavior, this article will utilize examples from across various video game platforms and genres to demonstrate that whether trying to survive daily life as a trans woman in the beginning stages of transition in tranxiety or exploring the dating life of Maple Bay’s latest resident in Dream Daddy, queer video games serve as a platform through which players are encouraged to perform critique via queer play, that is to say, playing outside of traditional video game and character norms. Embracing a productive nexus of critical reflection and performativity, queer video games demonstrate that critique is well served by participatory media. Critique has entered the digital era and, though transformed, it is alive and well.

Does “Critical Composition” (Still) Exist?

Reflections on the Material of New Music


Although the term “critical composition” was paradigmatically used by Nicolaus A. Huber in his text “Kritisches Komponieren” from 1972 (Huber 2000), one can argue that the early atonality and dodecaphony of the Second Viennese School — and their theorization by Adorno — laid the foundation for following generations of composers who perceived their work as a product of critical thinking. Following an Adornian rationale, early atonal composition would be viewed as an immanently negative and aesthetically indrawn last bastion against the historical tendency of the material in Western societies, only pre-conceptually connected to society, whereas many post-war composers turned toward analytical or politically committed forms of composition that introduced music as a means of critically reflecting on the interrelations between musical and social spheres.

By outlining the emancipatory potential of John Cage’s music philosophy, I want to counterpoint the conventional notion of “critical composition” as a phenomenon within the post-war avant-garde, which is deeply rooted in the European intellectual tradition of a sovereign subject. Against this background, the critical potentials of contemporary conceptions of composition “as an expanded field of artistic practice encompassing a range of different media and symbolic relationships” (Barrett 2016) can be grasped beyond the ideals of work autonomy and material progress.

A World Without Norms

Historicizing Critique and Postcritique


Postcritical methodologies are reluctant to historicize themselves because historicization is itself one of the suspicious/symptomatic critical modes that they seek to replace. Nevertheless, a proper historicization of the transition from critique to postcritique could lend more legitimacy to postcritique, and would also help us determine if its methodological tools are adequate to our contemporary moment. This essay uses Michel Foucault’s description of the move from a disciplinary to a governmental regime of power to historicize the transition from critique to postcritique. Focusing in particular on the function and power of norms under disciplinarity and governmentality, I argue that our commitment to critique should be determined by the relative normativity of contemporary society.