The critic is a conscript and this is the draft.1
In 1931 in the midst of fascism’s ascent in Weimar Germany, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and a small cadre of collaborators began planning a new journal, Crisis and Criticism [Krise und Kritik], stating its terrain as “the present crisis in all areas of ideology” and, further, that “it is the task of the journal to register this crisis or to bring it about, and this by means of criticism.”2 We can hear our own hoarse voices here: the present crisis, after all, rings clear—in all areas of ideology, even. Can we register our own crisis, or bring it about, by means of criticism?
Crisis and Criticism remained an unfinished journal, a sketch set against the backdrop of an emergent disaster; one that its prospective editors were already seeing the edges of, one they were already within. Crisis is a word that has returned in a moment of danger; the rubble already here, accumulating. Our time reads as one continuous crisis from a past now returned in which criticism came too late to act on: swelling fascism in newly mutating media and forms; carceral capitalism and anti-Black brutality; colonial inscriptions remediated and institutional ruptures writ large; an all-world illness amidst economic and social collapse. Now we are reading postscripts for prescriptions.3 We seek to right something through writing—the scripts available to us in our own unintelligible signatures.
Writing, in its first form with the Sumerians, began as a kind of accounting to record debts, document lists of objects and register unpaid acts. We need a ledger of the particular failures of our time—of political will, of institutional structure, of collective coherence, of liars and their listeners, of power and its abusers. The silence of enablers. The votes that were cast, and by whom. Critics are not here, however, to bear witness—or, not only.
Brecht proposed an article for the unpublished first issue of Crisis and Criticism entitled “Welcoming the Crisis” in which he reframes the conception of crisis into transformative terms, stating: “Crisis is not to be understood as meaning the end of something, but as the term is used in the course of an illness,” as in the “turning point in a disease” in which the patient will either get better, or worse. The need now, again, is to register the crisis (a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger) as a means of bringing about another crisis (the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death). We are, again, within an intersecting crisis and the outcome is still uncertain. Critique has too often given an illusion of progress without ever acting upon the disease. We don’t need another diagnosis, but a means of repair.
What are these reparative registers of criticism, and what tools are at hand to bring about a turning point toward recovery? Perhaps we need a new place to begin: furious, clear-eyed, comprehensive acts of criticism.
Throughout his writings, Walter Benjamin proposes an expansive, interrelated role for the critic, which he defines interchangeably as the strategic critic,4 the interventionist thinker, the author as producer and the operative writer.5 In each of these formations, critics are considered central to the task of remaking society, preceding and prefiguring a revolutionary horizon. Criticism, in this view, is an essential component of any theory of change, offering language and searing thinking towards the arc of societal transformation. To imagine critics as central to a political position tramples assumptions of the parasitic role of this figure—always behind, out of time, a commentator of the already existing. Now, as in Benjamin’s time, is an urgent moment for the critic to enter history rather than interpret it.6 This calls for a reanimation of the strategic critic who intently extends criticism outward into another future.
In reference to Guy Debord’s infamous self-definition “I am not a philosopher. I am a strategist,” McKenzie Wark offers the observation that “the strategist occupies, evacuates, or contests any territory at hand in pursuit of advantage.” A practice of strategy assumes a partisan position that assesses and articulates, maneuvering forward within a complex field. The strategist surveys the present location and outlines the necessary next steps. A critic-as-strategist, in other words, would be future-oriented. Any critique of the present requires the formation of future movements in which one assesses allies and enemies alike determining which opportunities are generative and which are extractive, what coalitions could exist towards mutual survivance and how to constitute them in action.
Strategic criticism, then, is both oppositional and propositional. The critic strategizes not only against a shared enemy, but also with and toward collective, life-affirming efforts.7 Following Benjamin and Brecht, any individual critical practice is insufficient. Criticism must be turned into a long-range arc of renewing or remaking the apparatuses of production, distribution and dissemination, and of transforming existing institutions or building new ones aligned with the wider struggles of our time.8 In their conversations around Crisis and Criticism, they go so far as to say that the “thinking of the individual is ‘disinterested’ and almost always worthless. What is valuable, i.e. interventionist, is when a number of people create ‘committed’ arguments.”9
The strategic critic proposed here is inherently plural, an emergent “we” assembling around a set of shared principles: anti-fascism, anti-racism, abolition, decolonization and its other name, liberation, as well as a wider circle of ethics and propositions for how publishing and its apparatuses are organized, supported and structured. The strategic critic is never singular—it is not a figure, but an orientation towards the task of criticism. It is a directional practice intent on position-taking and collective constructivism–even at its most scathing, it builds. These interventionist strategies are proposed, argued over, undermined, edited, amended and then made tactical in conjunction with other figures: the publisher, the organizer, the artist-imaginary, the activist, the abolitionist, the instituent, the anti-institutionist, the worker, the insurgent.
If “politics is criticism’s continuation by other means,” as Brecht proposed, then to work backwards, the critic is also partially responsible for the failed politics of the present—a shallow root on a diseased tree.10 Criticism’s failure is precisely in not acknowledging itself to be political, or to have insufficiently extended, or continued, its criticism into politics. Here, we rekindle a seemingly ignored assertion that attempts “to link artistic standards indissolubly with politically advanced ones.”11 In other words, to insist that a critic’s facilities must account for politically advanced standards as it assesses artistic acts and infrastructures, and, further, that this same standard be applied to the critic’s own work. Again in “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin proposes that “the tendency of a literary work can be politically correct only if it is literarily correct.”12 Do we claim that the inverse is true as well? A work can only be artistically, or critically, correct if it is politically correct (to use a phrase that cuts both ways). To be political, correctly. To paraphrase Giorgio Agamben: the critic is responsible for language and will be judged by it.13 To take care of this language, and the truth of it, is a political task and, likewise, to fail to take care is its own form of critical bankruptcy. This is a debt registered. As critics we are con-scripts, with the scripts – part of the script, even in silence.
The critic is complicit in the world as it exists, but it was not by means of criticism that this crisis appeared. Rather, its absence is more deeply seen in the present’s factional fictions, partisan propositions and post-truth reconfigured as a political movement. It is criticism’s failure to accurately account for the danger; a failure of imagination to propose compelling alternate visions; a failure of strategy to counter the crisis’s rise. Fascists strategize their steps. They imagine the architecture of their overthrow in detail. They undermine a free press, casting doubt on any oppositional voice through a distributed media mesh of local TV stations, AM radio, church bulletins, far-right blogs, bots and bloated talk show hosts that has seeped into the groundwater over decades.
Within this arc, who now claims the role of strategist? Even indicted, Steve Bannon would accept it, this self-proclaimed architect of downstream politics.14 Or the DeVos family with their endless think-tanks, self-named arts management institutes, art prizes and power-hungry patronage merging into political power.15 In Benjamin’s time, he considered “the newspaper [as]…the writer’s most important strategic position” but that “this position is in the hands of the enemy.”16 Today’s situation is not so far afield. The world’s first trillionaire, Jeff Bezos, owns paper of record The Washington Post, which is nonetheless seen as a primary defender of liberal values. Within the art world, known sexual abuser Knight Landesman remains part owner of Artforum even as it pushes out self-aware “radical” critique. Critics have ceded the position of strategist to abusers, given their tools to other masters who are building cells around us, who are building publications in their own image and making purchase on communal imaginaries.
In its forms of strategy, criticism must instead act in concert as allies and advance guards. If it remains singular, or a generalized form disconnected from other arenas of action, it risks the danger Paolo Virno identifies in relation to the public intellect: “Critique, if it does not become a republic, a public sphere, a political community, drastically increases forms of submission.”17 In the weakened position more commonly understood as the place of the critic, this is precisely criticism’s enabling function. Too often, it harms without repair, or reifies the institution as inevitable. It bludgeons with no trace of solidarity; it acts singularly, alone at a laptop, with no collective will. Other collectivities are needed—and are in formation—through worker-owned media platforms, collective research groups (such as the one shaping this publication), coalitions of independent publishers and more. We must find each other, tendril out, ally and conspire, interrogate and co-create, conjure and orient towards other liberatory futures. Within this conscription, “the reader is always prepared to become a writer.”18 Critique must cohere into a community.
Towards this wider effort is an acknowledgement that the critic’s position is inherently conditional or dependent, mediated by means of publication, dissemination and circulation, by an entire apparatus set against the appearance of true politics. Brecht and Benjamin proposed an additional issue of Crisis and Criticism exploring the politics of publishers, including a “critique of publishing firms (not of the books published by them), but the political tendency of publishers.”19 Elsewhere, Benjamin elucidates this point further, stating that “we are confronted with the fact…that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”20
The context and structure of any publication—its form, its financing, its ownership, its political entanglements, its point of view—are all inscribing meaning into the published work. The publication overwrites and underwrites the critique contained. With Crisis and Criticism, this generative thinking was turned towards the collective effort of defining the terms of a journal capable of catalyzing strategic criticism as a publishing practice. Rather than solely focusing their terms outward towards publishers, or even, as elsewhere, towards the critique of criticism, they instead saw the necessity of inaugurating a publication capable of registering the force of their critique without reifying existing power structures. Discontent with circulating their critique through compromised contexts, they intended to create a space for shared orientation towards criticism with tangible consequences and interventionist thinking with infrastructural implications.
This resonant call remains prescient for a forcible revision of our organizational forms—towards solidarity with the oppressed, towards collectivity, towards auto-critical apparatuses and ethical infrastructures. The apparatus of production and publication remain rarely in question, even after these ripples. The implication, then as now, is to take over the means of production and publication—for strategic critics to become the publishers ourselves.
This is collective work whose purview continues to extend outward: the reader becomes the critic, the critic becomes the publisher, and the publications push further into structural transformation. A continuation of criticism into politics is not simply notional, but is rooted in solidarity and action within wider spheres. For Chantal Mouffe, this calls for “establishing links between social movements, political parties and trade unions. To create, through the construction of a chain of equivalence, a collective will; to engage with a wide range of institutions, with the aim of transforming them.”21 The strategic critic must then dearticulate existing infrastructures, disseminate dissent and rearticulate practices beyond the bounds of what is presently possible, ungovernable and open-ended. The strategic critic works ahead of, but also between and beneath, movements. The strategic critic precedes and prescribes. The strategic critic unwrites, rewrites, underwrites, describes. To see strategic criticism through to its intended end is abolitionist work—unmaking and remaking, oppositional and transformational.
This work is world-ending and world-building, both. Can the critic help build otherwise worlds? The articulation of shapes, and steps towards these worlds—in other words, strategy—is the urgent work to come. The strategic critic must continue criticism into the creation of new publications, collectivities and other adaptive new modes of being, into prefigurative politics and embodied organizing, even as the critic refuses failed forms. The strategic critic must keep writing into these futures. The strategic critic makes explicit what is and what is not yet. Within this not yet we return upstream from a culture acting upon us.
This is a draft: an unfinished fragment meant to draw in wider alliances towards this shared task. If the place of publishing may be reclaimed as central to the political project of constituting an altered reality, then the strategic critic must co-author this path in order to register the crisis or to bring it about. We are either near death or moving toward recovery and this, finally, is the aim of our strategy: an otherwise world and proposals towards its possible form.
This essay was first published in MARCH 01.
James McAnally is the Executive + Artistic Director of Counterpublic 2023. He additionally serves as an editor and co-founder of MARCH: a journal of art & strategy, was the co-founder and director of The Luminary, an expansive platform for art, thought, and action based in St. Louis, MO, and a founding member of Common Field, a national network of independent art spaces and organizers. McAnally has presented exhibitions, texts and lectures at venues such as the Walker Art Center, Kadist Art Foundation, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, The Artist’s Institute and Gwangju Biennale. McAnally’s writing has appeared in publications such as Art in America, Art Journal, Bomb Magazine, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, and he is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing.