“I know, you investigated. Maybe you need to apply some of your investigative skills to yourself.” — Teddy, in Memento (Nolan, 1999)
It’s not as hard to be critical as some people seem to want to make it.
If you asked me (and you didn’t but I’m still going to butt in here): the main thing is, you need to know what question you are working on, you need to know why you are working on it, you need to have assembled the right tools to go about trying to answer it, and you need to have some idea about who might care to hear about your work and why.
Relevance is like a dirty word in some academic circles. So let me claim this isn’t about ‘being relevant.’ I’m not talking about making 19 year-olds care about your brilliant lectures. I’m not even talking about making you care about 19 year-olds (but maybe you should). I’m talking about being clear about why it is that what you do matters, while caring as well somewhat about who else will care.
Furthermore, if you want to claim from my lips the descriptor “critical,” then, you’ll meet the following criteria. The empiricist in me will insist that you have some tangible data and that you are not just making stuff up or speculating. The pragmatist in me will insist that the words and concepts you use work or have some demonstrable use in finding and relating to actual things in the world. Don’t get all caught up in abstractions. Don’t make the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Your categories and ideas are tools. (Thank you John Dewey.) Finally, the human in me will insist that you not be villainous as you go about your work. Don’t be evil.
Indeed, you don’t have the burden of saving the world—just work on what you work on. But at least you should be working on solving some actual problem that someone cares about, even if it is only you, that is, your own problem. What’s your problem?
Call me naive. Call me an insouciant. But I think that, before you spend a lot of time wondering whether the mainstream is being critical enough, maybe you should spend some more time wondering what it is exactly, that you think we are doing here. There are many kinds of writings and other media presenting academic work. Not all are of equal value. Some are good, some bad; some are heroic, others are evil. All, however, are in the business of trying to make the world. We academics are just folks in the business of making interventions, of offering competing constructions of our little parts of the world. And so we contribute to larger matrices.
Now, everyone comes out of the womb knowing nothing but the intangible impulses of sense, structure and instinct. And then we all quite gradually have our worlds and identities formed in language and body through contact with the worlds proposed and imposed by others. That’s interpellation if you want me to use a fancy term for it. We critics are just small parts of that unfolding of being, embedded in our various places and times, tweeting like birds. If you want to be critical, know your branch. If you want to be an investigator, investigate yourself.