This introduction places the project within the contemporary context: we need a critique of critique because we live in a culture of critique. This work differs from other critiques of critique in that it does not oppose critique but examines it on historical and conceptual grounds. This examination follows the example of Immanuel Kant's critical project. After introducing an original notion of "orientation," critique is presented as one of three orientations of critical thought—spectatorial orientation (critique), agential orientation (emancipatory thinking), and affective orientation (thinking in revolt). Each orientation has a set of ontological, epistemological, ethical, political, topological, and chronological entailments. The introduction introduces each of the entailments of critique as they will be further unpacked and problematized over the course of the book. The introduction then explains the structure, methods, and style of the book.
The overture introduces the basic motifs of the book, which will later be further developed. In this way, it provides the reader with an overview of the book's argument and of the orientation of critique and its entailments. The overture does this by unpacking a passage by critical theorist Max Horkheimer that captures the essential spirit of critique. Through the analysis of this statement, I present and problematize critique's signature universalism, realism, moralism, rationalism, and revolutionary progressivism, above all, the conviction that the world is unjust and needs to be changed.
Chapter 1 presents critique's conception of its world as a spectacle. It argues that critique has an ambivalent relationship to the spectacle and exemplary spectacles such as theater, cinema, and other media. Critique opposes these spectacles and operations, but it does so by creating its own, theoretical spectacles. The chapter analyzes the iconic allegory of the cave, from Plato's Republic, as representative of the ontology of the spectacle, and the concept of enlightenment and the "critical turn." These analyses underscore the embeddedness of critique in the language of visibility. The chapter concludes by discussing the historical and cultural rivalry between theory, especially critical theory, and the theater, as two emblematic expressions of the society of the spectacle.
Chapter 3 inspects the critic's relation to time and history and the role of injustice in critique's historiography. The chapter argues that dialectical historiography, in the style of Hegel and Marx, is confessional in structure. If the premise of the Catholic confession, as exemplified in Augustine's work, is an "original sin," that of critical theory is an original injustice. This analogy to confession suggests, first, that injustice is a structural necessity in the construction of a coherent, goal-oriented history; therefore, injustice is a means to the end of justice. But by establishing the necessity of injustice for the attainment of justice, its very unjustness seems to be undermined.
Chapter 4 examines the educational orientation of critique and the role of external authority in its pedagogy. The chapter shows that the need to educate or enlighten others, and in general, a missionary, converting drive, is intrinsic to critique's conceptions of enlightenment and morality. The goal of critique's education, as exemplified in Socrates, is to convert the student from submission to external authority into independent, critical thought. But this conversion requires, I argue, submission to the external authority of the converter, or at least a measure of blind trust in their message, procedures, and intentions. Along with a professed selflessness and benevolence, the critic asserts moral and epistemic superiority.
Chapter 5 examines the ontologies of critique and their moral entailments. The argument is that although critique admits of multiple ontologies, they all share an identification of being with presence as opposed to absence and to time. The chapter begins by discussing the importance of ontological commitments and assumptions for any kind of critical thinking and thinking in general. It then elaborates on three prominent iterations of the ontology of presence: an ontology of objectivity (including the subjective versus objective opposition), of actuality (including the true being versus mere appearing opposition), and of possibility (including the real versus ideal opposition). Each of these ontological frameworks, the chapter shows, has a built-in moral component: being is not only determined in a certain way (as objectivity, as actuality, as possibility) but also morally condemned (as objectionable, as potentially evil, as problematic and imperfect).
Chapter 6 continues the exploration of critique's ontologies, now with a focus on the political categories they entail. The main oppositions discussed in this chapter are species versus genus (or specific versus general), being versus having, and universality versus singularity. Among the categories and preoccupations deriving from these oppositions are authenticity, autonomy, rights, class, gender, race, humanism, and universalism. The chapter underscores the metastable nature of these categories and oppositions and the paradoxes they involve, for example; the concept of "right" has the impossible task of bridging a categorial (unbridgeable) opposition between being and having.
Chapter 7 studies the topologies of critique, defined as its modes of spatializing or schematizing space. True to its dialectical logic, critique's space is marked by a set of oppositional coordinates: inside-outside, upside-downside, and frontside-backside. All of these imply a limit, as what stands between the inside and the outside, between what is above the ground and what is below it, and so on. The limit, in turn, stands opposed to another feature of critique's spatiality: wholeness. The opposition between limit and whole makes possible and necessary the advent of a turnaround (conversion, revolution, reversal)—from one side of the limit to the other. Critique's topology informs the political notions of inclusion and exclusion, the philosophical identification of reason as "ground," the search for "fundamental" conditions, and the epistemological identification of knowledge with exposure (bringing something out of hiddenness and darkness into openness and light).
Chapter 8 studies the chronologies of critique, defined as its modes of temporalization and historicization. Critique's chronologies are marked by a set of oppositions: old versus new (or "modern"), before versus after, end versus beginning. These oppositions shore up debates surrounding progress (progressivism versus reactionism, progress versus decadence, optimism versus pessimism), as well as the search after the first and final causes. These oppositions involve a limit, as expressed in the concern about the beginning of time and the end of the world. These limits are the axes around which revolutions occur. A tension plagues critique's chronology, between desire to revolutionize or break new ground and desire to reach an end (peace, justice, utopia), in other words, between the ever-moving and all-encompassing nature of time and the need to establish beginnings and endings. The chapter concludes by explaining why orientations, including critique, are necessarily metahistorical or supratemporal.
The conclusion introduces the concept of "betrayal," a reworking of Aristotle's idea of "deviation form." Each orientation has its own betrayals—modalities that reveal the essence of the orientation and contradict it. The conclusion argues that part of the payoff of a critique of critique is the capacity to identify such betrayals and guard from them. Three betrayals are analyzed, as they come to bear in contemporary discourses around critique and critical theory: "Total Critique," "A Critique of All-against-All," and "The Activist Mystique." Each of these betrayals risks making critique uncritical: total critique defeats the revolutionary aspect of critique, the critique of all-against-all defeats the universalizing aspect, and the activist mystique defeats thinking. The conclusion ends with a brief account of two alternative orientations of critical thinking—emancipatory thinking and thinking in revolt—and argues that critical thinking exists in the necessary tension between these orientations.