How Will Critique Save the World? : Popular Theory and Public Humanities
This episode of High Theory is based upon a conference paper Saronik and Kim wrote for the American Comparative Literature Association Conference in 2023. It departs from our usual conversational style, in that we take turns reading sections of the paper aloud. But we could all do with a dose of formality, right?
The paper we read is titled, “How Will Critique Save the World? : Popular Theory and Public Humanities” and it talks about the method wars on Twitter, the cameo appearance of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation in The Matrix, alt-right conspiracy theory, and the academic job market. The full revised text of our conference paper is available below, with references.
The image accompanying this episode was made by Saronik Bosu. Don’t use it without asking him.
Every year from 1986 to 2014, the Queer Students Alliance at Brown University held a party called “Sex Power God.” Key terms of critical practice—the erotic, the divine, and queerness in the university get you most of the way to new historicism while the critique of power is central to theory from Machiavelli to Marx, Fanon to Foucault—appear in the name of a notoriously raucous student bash. We contend that popular forms have been central to the construction of critical thought and remain necessary to any compelling future orientation.
When we wrote this talk, we were responding to a call for papers that included a line about critique being “a hangover from the bad old days of high theory.” Kim and I loved this phrase not just because we host a podcast called High Theory, but because it locates the history of critique in the body. In the bad old days of high theory, with Deleuze and Guattari, “We had hallucinatory experiences, we watched lines leave one plateau and proceed to another like columns of tiny ants. We made circles of convergence.” Then we woke up with a hangover and a grumbling ambition to critique. When we were deciding on a name for our podcast, the word ‘high’ signifying the ambition of our remit – we planned to be promiscuous with our definitions (just as we are in real life, perhaps). Theory would include the Frankfurt School and its descendants to an extent, but rather than trace a tap root that takes us back to Aristotle, we would follow the rhizomatic tendrils of thought to all sorts of adventures in cultural criticism. We would even talk to physicists and computer scientists. An interdisciplinarity of method of query, we thought, could be met by the grand inclusivity of theory in our historical moment. Despite the hangover.
A word here about parsing theory and critique and criticism as distinguishable methods. We based our podcast on the connotative overlap between theory and critique not so much as contingency in the history of literary critical humanities, but as the prerequisite condition of our work. As grad student and contingent scholar, our interest lay in what ‘doing theory’ could say about the state of the profession, or more importantly, what it could do. In 2020-2021, that corner of Twitter where literary humanists live was rocked by debates that were collectively termed the “method wars”. Lines were drawn in the sand, especially between efficacies of critique and post-critique, between supposed attitudes towards the pleasure of the text in both camps. In due course, academic twitter made fun of academic twitter and the fact that it had found devolving into a “method war” necessary. In her essay titled “The Shush”, Kyla Wazana Tompkins pointed out that “These are not method wars: these are resource wars. Every “war,” if we even want to use that term so loosely from here on out, is going to be a war of resources pretending to be something else. As perhaps all war has ever been.” As grad student and contingent scholar, we wanted to code resource scarcity into the way in which we deployed theory, never bound in stringent definitions, and often as euphemism for all sorts of readings. Times are hard, and no kind of analytical pleasure should be foregone.
If we take Twitter for the public sphere, and we do so cautiously, the method wars become a contemporary form of popular theory rather than a spat of academic infighting. The pleasure of the text at stake in the methodologies of critique and post-critique looks a bit more embodied and a bit less arid when we focus our attention outside the classroom. What is it that makes theory worth fighting for? Our hunch is that it’s something that lies between the university and the public.
The rest of this paper is dedicated to another example from the bad old days, one that latches on to the sex appeal of high theory, only to get trapped in a dynamic of appropriation and misappropriation that brings us back to the contemporary suspicion of theory as conspiracy.
The 1999 film The Matrix opens with an image familiar to anyone who has walked through a university library during finals week: a person passed out with their head on a computer keyboard. In the film, Neo sleeps in the reflected light of an endless scroll, news media on the computer monitor, headphones plugged-in to the CD player. Byung-Chul Han’s work on burnout asks us to read Neo in relation to the overtired knowledge workers of neoliberal achievement society. The cyber-punk image of illegal hacking late into the night loses its frisson of resistance when we realize it is simply another version of working from home.
Neo is wired into the machine, a cyborg subject with headphones for ears, merged with his desk and its technological detritus. The curve of his body slumped against the desk mirrors the curve of the ergonomic keyboard in front of his face. He is awakened by a disruption of the graphical interface: someone has hacked his computer. “Wake up, Neo…” the hacker types, “The Matrix has you…” It issues a command, straight out of Lewis Carroll, “Follow the white rabbit.” Then to confirm its Godly providence, it types: “Knock, knock, Neo.” Neo stares at the screen in disbelief, then starts when the knock comes at the door. He turns around to attend to the sound, and the text on the screen disappears. This paranoid opening sequence sets the terms for the famous red pill blue pill scene that has been taken up with a vengeance by the alt-right on the dark web today. But I would like to suggest that it can also teach us something about critique and post-critique.
When Neo opens the door, he encounters someone he knows: Choi, a guy with a leather jacket, a fondness for mescaline, and a sardonic and sexy-eyed companion called Du Jour. The crew surrounding Choi is dressed for a luxe warehouse rave or Berlin techno club, and indeed they go clubbing in the next sequence. But they’re there to buy drugs, or something like it. Choi hands Neo two grand in cash through the crack of the door. Neo retrieves a mini-compact disc from a hollowed out book. “Hallelujah,” says Choi when he receives the disc, “You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ.” Neo replies with anxiety, “You get caught using that…” and Choi cuts him off, “Yeah, I know, this never happened, you don’t exist.”
These lines establish the transaction as illicit and pleasure making, and we could trace a line back from the language of salvation to Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” The scene is full of tropes of the illicit drug trade, from the lateness of the interaction and the squalor of Neo’s apartment, to the cash payment and the hollowed out book. But it is the book that interests us here, a cloth-bound hardcover with Simulacra & Simulation stamped on the cover. You’ve seen the film, and you’re listening to a theory podcast, so you saw this coming a mile off – but that might just be because you’re a paranoid critic. At any rate, the prop is not identical to the book. The cloth bound University of Michigan Press 1995 edition of Baudrillard’s text, translated by Sheila Glaser is red, with the title printed on the side, and it’s a rather slim book. In the film, the book is green, the title is embossed on the front cover in gold, with a rather dramatic ampersand, and it’s fat, the thickness of A Thousand Plateaus. You can’t see the author’s name, probably for copyright reasons. But when Neo opens the book, the page that faces the hollowed out section is taken from Baudrillard’s text. It’s the first page of the final chapter, “On Nihilism.”
Rather than show the opening parable of the map that replaces the territory, from which Morpehus quotes, “the desert of the real” (which of course then became the title of a book by Žižek a few years later), the Wachowskis chose the final essay, in which Baudrillard critiques critique. And I’ll quote from Baudrillard’s text here, and in fact this quote is from the page facing the hollowed out section, the page you see in the film:
Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it.
So the transparency of nihilism belongs to both theory and system, it is indissoluble from it. And “the system” in this sentence is paired grammatically with “all the theory that still pretends to analyze it.” This is a meta version of Han’s argument about “neoliberal achievement society” – we imagine we can escape the system by working harder, thinking faster, pushing ourselves beyond the norms and confines of the capitalist workplace, but in fact our extraordinary labor is presupposed by the system of late capitalism, even constitutes it. In Baudrillard’s words, “The Matrix is the kind of film about the Matrix that the Matrix itself could have produced.”
Baudrillard’s response to the film in a 2003 interview with Aude Lancelin is that they got it wrong. The Wachowskis mixed-up the hyperreality of post-modernity with the ancient problem of the world as illusion, “The most embarrassing part of the film is that it confuses the new problem raised by simulation with its arch-classical, Platonic treatment. This is a serious flaw.” When Neo takes the red pill, he emerges into a real world outside the Matrix. But in Baudrillard’s analysis, to quote another theorist, “il n’a pas de hors-texte” – there is nothing outside the text. Theory has become identical to that which it analyzes, critique has no teeth because there is never any external vantage point, only the system that constitutes the real. Granted, Baudrillard took the long way around to the feminist critique of standpoint epistemology, but that’s besides the point. Or maybe it is the point.
Towards the end of the final chapter in Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard complains, “We are in the era of events without consequences (and of theories without consequences).” But that late-nineties moment when media and theory seemed to be collapsing into each other, epitomized by The Matrix and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, has passed. The ouroboros of theory ate its own tail and coughed up the shreds of the map. The role of prominent academics in the #MeToo movement revealed theory to be just another discourse of power, as Baudrillard suggests. The bad reading of hyperreality which supplied the paranoid allegory of The Matrix has escaped into the conspiracy politics of the present. Theory has consequences. We are living in its wake.
We would like to suggest two directions we might go in closing.
The final image of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation features the narrator calm, content, and empty, having succeeded in her quest to sleep for a year. The chemically induced sleep of Moshfegh’s narrator and the overtired hacker sleep of Neo reframe the flat affect of post-critique. The late-capitalist dynamic of achievement and burnout in Han’s analysis helps explain the credential inflation John Guillory sees undermining the academic job market. And it all just makes me want to go to sleep. So that would be the hangover.
But there’s also paranoia, and we can think here of Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid reading, and the red pill blue pill scene from The Matrix, as the arch metaphor for alt-right conspiracy theory. The “Sex, Power, God” party at Brown, with which we opened was shut down in 2014 due to concerns about sexual violence associated with the #MeToo movement, but in 2005 it was secretly filmed by a reporter from Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” – a conservative backlash that forms a historical context for the “Critical Race Theory” panic of the present. And this too is a form of popular theory. So a choice I will pose to you in bad faith, alt-right and alt-ac? “You take the blue pill… the story ends… You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) tr. Brian Massumi. p.27
 Kyla Wazana Tompkins, “The Shush.” PMLA 136 no. 3 (2021): 417-423
 I am thinking here of “The Tiredness Virus” The Nation (12 April 2021) https://www.thenation.com/article/society/pandemic-burnout-society/ but the larger work to which that article referrs is Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, Stanford UP, 2015.
 It looks like a dvorchak keyboard when he’s sleeping, but when he actually starts typing on it, it turns out to be an ordinary qwerty keyboard.
 The Matrix, directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (1999, Warner Brothers).
 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 159. https://archive.org/details/simulacrasimula000baud/page/158/mode/2up?view=theater
 Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, 202
 Baudrillard, “The Matrix Revisited,” Interview with Aude Lancelin, The Conspiracy of Art, 202. https://kirkbrideplan.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/jean-baudrillard-the-conspiracy-of-art.pdf
 Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 164
 The Matrix, directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (1999, Warner Brothers).