Notes on a Post(-)Critique

A response from Tutt following the recent Twitter drama, with a few references to my last post. Here’s a few brief points reflecting on what Tutt says there.

I identify as non-binary. Non-binary people are trans. I’m out at work and school and in all parts of my life. I’ve been living my life as an out non-binary person for over a year. Maybe Twitter hasn’t caught up yet, but I’ve questioned my gender online for years. Suffice it to say, I’d rather not be referred to as “he”.

I don’t have any issue with Tutt’s inclusion in the book, as if he too should be no-platformed. I simply disagree that seeking inclusion, even as a critic, has any benefit to anyone being defended by said critiques. I think any critical assessment of our political landscape must include actions as well as words. Call it a theory-spheric version of boycott-disinvestment-sanctions strategy. I like that the modern left is more principled and militant in this way.

When Tutt says: “As I look out on the splits and divisions on the left today, I see a left which is not driven by the same righteous liberal superego that I used to champion”, I hear echoes of all the things that those people he is critiquing used to say. It actually helps explain his inclusion and further confirms why he’s not really a worthy critic of those he shares pages with. It’s an amorphous grumpiness they all share.

There are more ironies here, adding to those discussed last time. Despite Tutt’s concluding swipe at leftist ressentiment, surely that word best applies to the trotting out of this vague conception of the “left” that just ain’t what it used to be? It’s giving old punk, disillusioned Gen Xer. It’s:

Tutt writes:

I realize that Nina is not seen as a fascist and her book on What Do Men Want was accepted by Penguin Random House after a thorough review of her actions. This is not to defend Power, but it is to say that to simply no-platform her may not deliver the results that are sought given that she is now a mainstream voice. As such, why not engage her at this level, especially given that there seems to be an inverse relation between the insistence on no-platforming and the growth of her exposure on rightwing channels?

Personally, I think gender essentialism is pretty legitimately fascist in its vying for populist support of the eradication of undesirables based on the supremacy of the gender binary, but maybe that’s just me.

I also don’t see how being published by PRH is any measure of legitimacy. Lest we forget Jordan Peterson is also a mainstream voice, whose last book was protested internally at PRH. But yes, I suppose this makes them both mainstream nonetheless. Still, would anyone besides Zizek consider actually engaging with Peterson on his “level”? Of course not. Because just as no-platforming them might arguably help their cause, you don’t have to look far to find videos of people engaging with them being packaged into YouTube clips showing how Peterson OWNS the woke snowflakes.

The suggestion that there is an “inverse relation between the insistence on no-platforming and the growth of [Power’s] exposure on rightwing channels” is pretty flimsy in this regard. These anti-woke pundits love to generate moral panics around their “threatened” free speech. It’s precisely what gets them these big platforms. (Kathleen Stock has mastered this playbook, and Power obviously admires her, as per her most recent book.) To suggest we should platform and engage with these bigots because no-platforming is actually what they want is a kind of gross reverse psychology I don’t think holds up to much scrutiny when you look at the overall makeup of the media-industrial complex they exploit. And so maybe you’re just damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But if you want to go the lesser of two evils route, I’d rather they rely on a pity party of fellow cranks than deign to take them seriously.

Of course, like all things, strategies like no-platforming can be misused and abused. Tutt shares a story of a non-white colleague having a class cancelled for including Freud on a syllabus. But that’s obviously stupid… I also think it’s an irrelevant, inapposite and somewhat infantilising comparison within the context of this debate. The critique comes from sharing platforms with people who actively spout hate and whip up culture-war bullshit in the present. It bears no resemblance to the example given.

Not platforming someone is not the same as refusing to critique them. It’s refusing to share a platform or space of debate that might benefit the person being critiqued.

I think critique can be expressed more impactfully in how you act and show solidarity, not simply in essays. Sharing platforms can give people and projects an undue legitimacy. It can allow for flimsy arguments of “balance” when the agenda is set by untrustworthy parties from the start.

It is telling that those like Power hate being critiqued in this manner, rather than in some livestreamed debate-club setting or in a journal. They don’t like being critiqued off home turf, outside some well-defined marketplace where their ideas can interact with others in faux legitimacy. They don’t like critiques that sit outside spaces they can control and influence.

This makes Tutt’s idea of a “post-critique” left bizarre to me. He has blatantly misunderstood when he says:

The idea pointed to here is that critique matters for nothing when you are dealing with transphobes like Power. 

That is obviously not true. If I believed or wanted to encourage that, I wouldn’t have published my own critiques of Power on this blog or on Twitter. I wouldn’t have written this post or the last one. I think Tutt understands this on some level. He has said on Twitter that he knows I don’t wish him ill (and I don’t); I am simply voicing my own critique.

Critique is hard — hard to write, hard to receive. It can be upsetting. I may feel strongly and I may sound grumpy, but it’s not my intention to just be mean. I know what it’s like. I dish it out, I can also take it. Surely that’s a prerequisite for hashing these things out so publicly on Twitter and on blogs?

Mike Watson weighed in on this, of course, asking Tutt about his mental health after all of this. (A valid question, since no one enjoys a pile-on.) But Watson seems to think there’s no regard for that kind of thing here from me, as if the intention is to cause upset alone. (In fact, these questions around what constitutes “critique” are starting to feel very familiar.) In fact, questions of mental health are central. The overarching point here is that engaging with TERFs for whatever reason is damaging to trans people. To see TERFs legitimised in these ways is upsetting to see. I don’t want to see these people engaged with. I’d rather they shrink into the irrelevance they deserve.

That is not “post-critique”. That is very much a straightforward critique of the situation and the conduct of some of those involved. If they think this isn’t critique but something else, maybe that’s because what is being critiqued, in part, is their own sphere and terms of debate. It’s not a debate that should be facilitated. Meeting them at their level and on their terms is something I see little value in. That’s not post-critique but rather a far more encompassing one that sees how a certain toothless platform-sharing “critique” isn’t critical enough.

(What was it that Baudrillard once said? Enough of the “critical”, where’s the “fatal”? Is that the post-critical? Guilty as charged there, maybe. I don’t want to critique TERF ideology, I want to kill it dead.)

Tutt concludes:

I do not think that the enforcement of guilt here goes to untangle a sense of moralism at work in Xeno’s analysis of this situation. I should embrace my guilt for doing so head on, i.e., I should embrace the superegoic logic of the left as it is instead of actively critique the left while remaining true to my principles.

A lazy and false equivalence here. “Guilt” is easily seized upon, since the denunciation of Twitter critiques as “guilt by association” was used by both Tutt and Theory Underground to diminish the stakes of sharing platforms with TERFs. I suggested, if only for the sake of punning, that the flippant dismissal of these critiques misunderstands and minimises the real harm done by associating with — that is, again, sharing a platform with — TERFs and other reactionaries.

Do I think Tutt is or should feel guilty? No. Framing things this way only attempts to defang a critique without addressing its primary concerns. These aren’t moral concerns but intellectual and political ones. You might even say ethical ones.

Who is the “other” Tutt is expressing solidarity for? In his essays, it’s trans people. In the context of this journal of promiscuous thinkers who all think the left is too mean, it seems Tutt has more solidarity with his fellow contributors in practice. As such, I simply think his way of approaching this is unethical because, as I said previously, it does little to actually demonstrate the solidarity he’s claiming.

Where are the lines being drawn between critique and post-critique, ethics and moralism? It seems to be one thing when Tutt does it, another when I disagree with his approach. It’s all blurry and all a little too convenient. It’s all woefully liberal.

I’m reminded of this recent essay by Juliet Jacques on a forthcoming centrist “frenemies” podcast from Ed Balls and George Osbourne:

The restoration of this chummy status quo could be predicted between the 2017 and 2019 elections, when Britain’s liberal centre put a premium on friendly disagreement. This insufferably smug Observer article about “cross-party pals” from the Labour right and Tory left, who set aside their clearly surmountable ideological differences to be mates, summed up this tendency perfectly: an attempt to present themselves as reasonable and fair, in contrast to anyone who suggested the architects of austerity might be disliked for their actions, let alone held accountable for them. Those people, it was implied, should let the “grown-ups” get on with governing.

This is what the mainstream looks like at the moment. “Theory Underground” does feel like the underground equivalent. Couched in different terms, there’s a patronising sense of letting the grown-ups debate the issues, because they’re important, with little accountability for how they’re all perpetuating a hostile environment (whether intentionally or not).

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