Significance in Crisis
What does it mean when I am addressing you here and now in English, with words that I have written more than a month ago some 850 kilometres away? When our languages travel slowly and do not meet on common ground, English will be the fastest, most convenient way of conveying meaning through time and space. This makes it an economical language: we save time using it; it makes our trade easier and more global, including that which we call criticism. Most of you will not even have to refer to the Slovenian translation of these words to understand what I mean when I am here and now speaking about the art of criticism, the problems it faces and the solutions we have for those, solutions that return to us in the form of problems.
English promises a limitlessness of communication because it is shared amongst most of us in this part of the world, because it rapidly has become our all first second language. The pace of its expansion is determined by the acceleration of our everyday lives and how we are increasingly becoming more interconnected with every passing moment, how we receive and disseminate that what we call culture throughout the world. It has become an infrastructure by itself that most of us access with ease, through which most of us know how to navigate well enough in order to understand and convey what we need to know and express.
English promises a being on-time of communication because it allows us to skip the difficult process of translation by meeting on a shared ground. Wherever we go, it seems more convenient to leave behind our native languages in order to address each other directly through the one that most of us know how to navigate. Every time we address someone in English, in one sense this language becomes a solution for a problem; a problem of incompatibility, a problem of cultural distance and the lack of time in communication. However, every time we do so this solution returns as a problem, just like here and now, where we are all forced to navigate through the meaning of my words on a shared ground that is not a common one, on which we have to struggle to convey anything, more than through the languages that came so naturally to us when we grew up at least.
In many ways, the convenience of the limitlessness and being on-time of the English language are similar to that which was promised to us by what we so clumsily refer to as the internet. As critics especially, we were drawn to a seemingly decentralised, free-of-charge distribution system that had been provided by various social networks which allowed us so easily to convey meaning through space and time, worldwide and instantaneously. Some even cheered at the erosion of the paternalistic media culture that had already begun to crumble some years before. Some saw in it a process of democratisation, thinking that the means of cultural production were finally becoming available for everyone – all over the world, at any possible instant.
The promise of social networks as networks of distribution and infrastructures for conveying meaning through them seemed economical, too. »It’s free and will always be«, one network in particular still claims to this day and that seemed true at first. We were boundless for a few years, being able to converse all over the world with little effort. All it took was the investment of a little bit of time. Now however, we have understood that the real price behind this claim is another one, that the incessant sharing on these platforms came at the price of losing our common ground, or what we like to call the public opinion – that which critics will have to refer to in one way or another, will have to engage with and call into question. Our freedom has paradoxically thus taken on the form of fractionalisation in concentration.
An Empire of Quantifiable Significance
Jacques Derrida, speaking in 1989 with Olivier Salvatori and Nicolas Weill about the problem of referring to, engaging with and calling into question the public opinion at a moment in history shortly after the End of History was announced, identified a »new censorship [that] combines concentration and fractionalization, accumulation and privatization[, that] de-politicizes.« This new censorship was undoing the πόλις (polis) by imposing itself as the most economical way of conveying meaning through space and time via tele-technologies prioritising the audio-visual, all while the privatisation of these technologies took place at the same time. What we are witnessing here and now, and what we as critics should acknowledge and point out as such, is not so much a return of these processes, but their intensification in the different media that we use in both our personal and professional lives.
The networks through which we communicate, through which we try to disseminate our critiques, favour a business model based on ad-revenue that rapidly triggered an economisation of communication. This economisation has assimilated almost every aspect of how we engage in culture today. The promise of potentially reaching everyone in the world returned as the imperative to reach as many people as possible, all over the world in the shortest time, in order to make the labour, that is the time that we invest in and on platforms that are free and will always be, as rewarding as possible. Success suddenly became more comparable than ever, significance could be evaluated in numbers and the equation seemed simple: the more, the better.
This severely affected the media industry since the only way to make a living was by getting people to click on links that would lead to homepages where advertisement was displayed. This was nothing new for sure; we were and are still dealing with an atavism of the age of print journalism when reach was calculated according to circulation and success meant selling a certain percentage of printed copies. This atavism however gained strength once the numbers became more reliable, when reach and success became significantly more quantifiable.
Within the alleged limitlessness of the social networks that connected the world, a competition for attention, i.e. visibility and thus space, had begun to take place. What before was celebrated as a process of decentralisation started to push those to the margins that would or could not adapt to the economic dynamics that ascribed significance primarily to emotion. The more moving a headline, the more outrageous or hilarious a piece of writing, the greater is its success. Worse yet, while those platforms grew and grew and lured more people, more publishers and critics in, they started to marginalise those on the outside more and more: no participation, no compensation. An empire of quantifiable significance installed itself as a hegemonic force that defined its realms by way of exclusion. Or is anyone truly free not to take part in it?
Even the being on-time of communication has become imperative. Culture now is presented to us as a just in-time product that demands just in-time consumption, and with it just in-time criticism as well. The sooner we react to something, the more chances we have to gain our audiences’ attention, to gain visibility within and according to the economic structures of the platforms. The distance that defines criticism in relation to both its subjects and its audiences thus collapses further and further within the infrastructures that seemed so convenient but have become the biggest inconvenience of all, installing a new censorship that both concentrates and fractionalises our conversations, that both accumulates and privatises the culture we are meant to participate in and comment on, that we aim to take in, analyse and criticise.
Convenience comes at a price: it deprives us of space and time precisely by creating the illusion that it would in fact provide us with more of them. Whenever we thought that we had liberated ourselves spatially and temporally, whenever we bought into the promise that »it’s free and will always be«, we paid for that with twice as much – with less free time than ever, with fewer space for contribution and participation than before. So what does it mean then when I am here and now addressing you in English with words that I have written more than a month ago some 850 kilometres away, that is when I resort to the fastest, most convenient way of conveying meaning through space and time?
The Limitations of Limitlessness
In many different ways, the English language has inserted itself on all levels into the infrastructures through which we communicate with each other and through which we carry out our trade as critics as well. There is for example no widely used programming language that does not in some way or another make use of the English language, meaning that it is always already inscribed into the empire in which we try to make sense of this world and convey meaning to our audiences – just like I try to convey my meaning to you here and now, in English.
Much like the networks whose dominant language in the Western world is always English, the English languages concentrates meaning and accumulates significance all the time and almost everywhere, fractioning and privatising our communication, acting as a new censorship that threatens to further marginalise criticism by way of exclusion. It is also entirely illusionary to think that it would actually connect us to potentially the entire world. Behind the Great Firewall of China, there is more and more Chinese being spoken on the internet, there are other platforms and messenger services being used. But we can barely hear it, cannot respond or participate in them and have to confine ourselves to the limits of what seems so conveniently limitless to us. In our trade, real exchange becomes thus sparser and sparser, while translations are needed less and less. Or so it seems.
As critics, we try to keep up with the pace of our incessantly moving cultures and find that we have no time to lose – that we have no time to participate in culture, to analyse and criticise it, because we are always already running late to just in-time production and just in-time consumption. We run late to the latest Twitter thread, late to the latest viral YouTube sensation, late to the latest book that has not been published in our native languages yet but has already been consumed in English and commented on, in English of course, by our audiences – who, too, do not want to lose time. Why then should they wait for the translation of a book that deals with the here and now, or that at least is being discussed in the here and now, on the internet more than anywhere else? Or why even write a book that would need translating, especially when it deals with the here and now?
The most well-known Slovenian critic has understood that, and slowly others have started to follow suit. They do not want to lose time; they do not want to be an inconvenience either. And how much of an inconvenience would it be for you and I if I, here and now, would address you in German with words I've written more than a month ago, some 850 kilometres away? It would only mean losing more time, and space with it, room for discussion as well as visibility outside these rooms.
As critics, we are progressively forced to think economically, whether we like it or not, and even if it means that we retreat deliberately to the low end of the economic hierarchy, to only address those who want to hear what we say and seek it out with great effort. While most of the major English-language publications fare significantly better than others, several publications have already started to expand internationally, meaning that they at least partially provide English-language coverage of recent events and culture. While literary criticism is not yet fully affected by it, other fields in cultural criticism are, in music – my main trade – especially.
Along the cultural and geographical limits of this seemingly limitless language however, social boundaries become increasingly fortified. Not only on a global, but also a local scale the fractionalisation and privatisation continues, further atomising what we like to think is a public opinion, or at least a public forum – a common, not only a shared ground. If criticism not only serves to mediate and translate forth and back between different genres, different cultures, different world views and ideologies, it also has to tackle the translation between different sociolects. If however, all of the significant capital is concentrated and accumulated in one language rather than being distributed throughout all others at once, this capital will only further concentrate and accumulate all meaning, all significance by way of exclusion, or will at least widen the divide between one layer of society and the other.
These new economics that have affected and assimilated criticism ever since it was plunged into the platforms and the superinfrastructure of the English language that dominates it, have triggered a perpetual crisis. It is a crisis of the significance of criticism itself. While we first thought we could be able to reach more people, create a wider public discourse, we here and now mostly fail to address anyone that is not already listening and replying to us. Criticism thus is caught in a feedback loop, with the solutions for its problems haunting it in the form of new problems, a new censorship. How though can it respond, perhaps even overcome this crisis – or simply survive, when making a living is already difficult?
Taking the Crisis to Court
Criticism is always already born out of crises, and thus here and now is being returned to its root: the Greek word krineín (κρίνειν) – to discriminate, to separate, or to distinguish, but also to order and to arrange, to decide and to judge upon or even to bring to court. By discriminating between which seems ubiquitous to us, by bringing to court the empire of quantifiable significance, we as critics would be radically critical. And so we should be. If criticism does not remind itself over and over again of the situations and contexts, the times and the spaces in which it is taking place, in which it is struggling for space, struggling to keep up with time, it will give into the new censorship that has concentrated and accumulated, fractionalised and privatised it.
This does however not mean that the only way out is back, back to the paternalistic media culture so many of us have cheerfully waved goodbye years ago, or the patriotic notion of one language that unites the homogeneous culture, itself confined to the nation state, whose borders all over Europe are currently re-fortified in order to exclude thousands, if not millions. On the contrary, this is what it means that I am addressing you in English, here and now, with words I've written more than a month ago: That criticism in order to remain significant, or in order to regain significance, has to accept and live within the crisis in order to survive it, to understand that there is no time to lose and that our shared ground is never a common one; to realise that our meeting at the margins of the empire of quantifiable significance is a step towards, as critics, becoming inconvenient again, towards re-politicising, towards becoming significant again.
Being inconvenient means taking to court our own convenience by acknowledging our crisis; by acknowledging, analysing and critiquing the crisis through the subjects of our criticism, their situations and contexts. This, after all, is what it means that I am here and now addressing you in English with words written more than a month ago some 850 kilometres away; words that have travelled slowly and yet are also available in translation.
 Derrida, Jacques: The Other Heading. Reflections on Today’s Europe, Bloomington, IN, 1992, p. 100.
Speech given at »Umetnost kritike« (»The Art of Criticism«) in Ljubljana in the summe of 2018. Slovenian translation by Jure Kapun here.