What’s the Point of Critique, Today?


Iain MacKenzie

What’s the Point of Critique, Today?

After an initial note of hesitancy about how to address the titular question, this caution is developed into a methodological perspective with the help of both Foucault’s approach to genealogy and the rhizomatics of Deleuze and Guattari. The discussion then pivots to the question of what idea of critique resonates with these methodological approaches. It is claimed that critique understood as a creative practice within an indifferent world avoids the recuperation of the presentism and the binary thinking that genealogy and rhizomatics, respectively, caution us against. This idea of critique is developed through a short reflection upon Deleuze’s articulation of control societies. It is concluded that the point of critique today is to overcome the stultifying indifference that results from relentless criticism by forging creative practices from within the middle of our emergent control societies.


IT is useful to begin by thinking about “today.” Writing in the midst of a global pandemic, it is tempting to insist that “today” is a point of rupture, or a moment of revelation, or that the rapid spread of coronavirus has humanity standing at a crossroads, ready to step into the abyss or to redeem ourselves in a bright new future. And yet, a moment’s reflection leads us to a series of banal truths: that there is nothing new about pandemics; that this particular one doesn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already obvious about our health care systems, our governments, and our economies; and that, when thinking about the difference “today” makes, there is little to be gained by apocalyptic pessimism or millenarian optimism.1 In contrast, when we think about “today” we would do better to approach it with great hesitation. Every day is a day for critical thought and “today”—where this signifies the arrival and duration of the coronavirus pandemic—is no different. The pandemic makes critical thought no more or less necessary than the day defined by an inbox full of emails or, for that matter, the day that starts with a friendly smile from a neighbour. These are all days that require critical thought, and that does, of course, include the “today” of coronavirus, however long that will be. The point is that we should be wary of fetishizing viral contagion as if it had otherworldly powers of revelation and if we do approach “today” with caution then we may see more clearly how it links to the dynamics and rhythms of everyday life.

Having begun with this hesitation, we can develop it more methodically. While it is important to keep our critical tools sharp every day, in order to resist the temptation of assuming that some days have critical tendencies buried within them when others do not, we must still reckon with the world we face “today” if critical thought is to have purpose and purchase. So, how can we do this? It is a question of method. It invites us to consider that “today” is both everyday and that it is also this day, now. As we think of our current relationship to coronavirus, we must approach it with the seriousness and rigour it deserves not because it is another “pandemic day” but because it is “today, and part of what that means for us is that it is another day in which we must reckon with coronavirus.” It is the task, in other words, of bringing conceptual and critical tools to bear that neither overdetermine nor undermine what is meant by “today.”2 I shall try to put some flesh on the bones of this sentiment by embracing a couple of critical methods which, it seems to me, have understood that “today” is unavoidable and to be embraced yet never to be fetishized: namely, genealogy and rhizomatics. What is more, each gives an important contribution to the task of situating critical thought in the present without forgetting that “today is just another day.”

There is much we can say about Foucault’s understanding of genealogy.3 Considering its role in helping us to reflect upon the point of critique today, though, we can bring to mind one of the key motifs Foucault adopted when discussing genealogy: it is a “history of the present.”4 The double-edged implication of this motif is that it warns historians against forgetting the present and critical thinkers against getting absorbed by “presentism.” With respect to the past, of course, this motif serves as a powerful reminder to historians to situate their work within present concerns because without this they will, amongst other things, remain blind to the myriad forms of power/knowledge shaping their investigations. However, it is sometimes forgotten that it equally serves as a reminder to ahistorical critical theorists that the risks of fetishizing the present are as severe as assuming that it doesn’t matter in one’s historical investigations. Foucault is all too aware that bringing the present to bear upon history may lead some critical thinkers to forget the past. We might think of a certain critical concern with “today” as one that tends to lead critical thought away from the complexities of how it is that the present has come to have the shape it does.5 Robbed of such historical sensitivities, critical thought is stymied from achieving the creative gestures that can challenge the present state of affairs. Understood as a “history of the present,” the genealogical task is to operate between the present concerns that guide our historical investigations and the historical concerns that guide our interventions in the present. As such, history can be liberated from the search for origins and critical thought can let go of the crutch of the current conjuncture. Genealogy, as Foucault put it once, is a practice of eventalization.6 It requires the “patient, gray and meticulous” search for the complicated processes of emergence that have shaped what matters to us, and it requires the same dedicated work on what matters to show that it is never exhausted by what we think, “today.” Both the past and the present must be eventalized, for Foucault, if critical thought is to be activated as a practice that can transform our world. Talking of how he approaches these complex moments and the relationships between them, Foucault proffers the compelling idea of a “polyhedron of intelligibility.” We will only come to understand the dynamics of change and emergence from our position of inquiry if we consider the complicated dimensionality to all events; yesterday, today and tomorrow. Of it all, genealogy reminds us to strike a cautious note with respect to some of the fetishizations of “today” that mark critical perspectives.

Sitting comfortably alongside Foucualdian genealogy, I would suggest, is the rhizomatic method of Deleuze and Guattari.7 For all that genealogy emphasises emergence and historical events whereas rhizomatics would appear to be a method that works on the surface of things, there is a fundamental complementarity that binds the two approaches together.8 We can see this as we turn to one of the motifs that Deleuze and Guttari use to summarise the practice of rhizomatics: “the multiple must be made.”9 As Foucault’s understanding of genealogy draws us away from singular points of origin and the twin idea of singular moments of critical importance in the present, so rhizomatics provides a complementary set of principles aimed at warding off the tendencies for critical thought to neglect such hard-won evental complexities in favour of the easy binaries of arborescent thought. There’s clearly a lot of fascinating work about the coronavirus that has employed categories based on binary thought, in one way or another, but it is by no means clear that the virus really tells us anything about global capitalism or that global capitalism tells us anything about the virus. At least, it does not give us access to the truth about the virus or the truth about global capitalism. It is much more interesting to consider that there is something happening in between. What processes of becoming are at stake in-between the becoming-capital of the virus and the becoming-virus of capital? As we critically reflect upon the relationship between the virus and capitalism it is tempting to impose a logic that reduces the complexities of how we might understand the origins of this relationship and what it means for us today. As we keep the principles of rhizomatics in view, we can avert these dangers and engender events in the making of the multiple between the virus and capitalism. In this manner we may say that the complementarity between genealogy and rhizomatics can be given its own motif: critical thinking is “thinking from the middle.”10 This is the critical slogan, borrowed from Deleuze, that binds together the critical practices of rhizomatics and genealogy so that we may avoid the tendency to fetishize “today” while, nonetheless, sharpening our critical tools in the analysis of what today means for critical thought.

These opening hesitations about how best to understand “today” are crucial as we approach the idea of critique. It is clear that there is plenty of criticism to be found “today”; one might even say that we have entered an epoch which is defined by the relentless criticism that shapes “today.” Such criticism, of course, is forged in (and gains energy from) the same fire that treats “today” as uniquely redemptive and/or uniquely damned; namely, it emanates from an already established ideological frame of reference. Let me be clear: there is much to be said in favour of criticism and much in the world that needs to be challenged within the established frames of reference. It is crucial, though, that we do not confuse this relentless criticism with the practice of critique if we—those of us invested in critical thought—think it (critique) can be employed in ways that change the world we inhabit. This distinction is drawn directly from the work of Kant. According to Kant, if criticism is allowed to flourish, that is, critical exchange within established frames of reference, then the result will be a culture of indifference to thinking.11 The basic structure of Kant’s idea of critique was motivated by the upsurge of indifferentism that he witnessed as a result of the stalemate between the rationalists and the empiricists, the dogmatists and the sceptics. Against this wave of indifference, Kant created a philosophical system that could both side-step the stalemate and sweep up the best of both positions with his famous Copernican turn away from the world towards the conditions of our subjective experience of the world. With respect to the relationship between criticism and critique, two key ideas emerge from this: on the one hand, critique was (and remains) a practice aimed at overcoming the indifference fostered by endless criticism; on the other hand, critique had to be created. As such, critique is first and foremost a creative practice of overcoming the indifference wrought by criticism. Whereas criticism operates within the ideological viewpoints already established on the global stage, critique draws out the indifference of such critical endeavours in order to inspire a creative moment that can then, and only then, be called critique. This allows for another clarification of our opening question: the point of critique today is to make a difference in the midst of the indifference that results from endless criticism.12

We can now embrace both the initial hesitation and this opening clarification. Critique and creativity meet “in the middle.” One of the key features of critique is that it needs to be a form of creativity all the way down. This needs to be the case because if the creative gesture is curtailed by a quasi-theological source of creativity itself then there will be a ground instantiated that will serve as the ultimate frame of reference. If this is the case then all there is, is criticism. Repeated attempts at founding critique without grounding it in an uncritical way do, in many respects, shape the history of critical thought, from Kant to the present. It was a problem that Kant did not resolve. While he recognised the problem, he could not but stop the search for conditions in a juridical model of critique that required the court of reason to pronounce on what counts, what matters, as critique.13 But is it possible to embrace the idea of creativity all the way down?  Surely, at some point, we must stop digging into the conditions of the conditions? These questions are at the heart of all attempts to establish a practice of critique. And it is notable that the answer is usually found in expanded notions of what counts as a practice.

On one trajectory, practices must be guided by the power of negation; on another trajectory, affirmation becomes the sole guarantor of critique.14 Without rehearsing this complex debate and its overlapping lineages, we can say that both genealogy and rhizomatics emphasize that creativity all the way down is achieved by working without origins and ends, while also making the multiple in the middle. It is from the middle of today and everyday, and from the middle of every relation of becoming that marks our present, that we can connect critique as a creative practice of overcoming indifference to the world “today.” Suspending our established frames of reference, we can engender creative moments of critique from within the genealogical complexities of “today” as everyday and employ the principle of making the multiple to explore the modes of becoming engendered by the virus and capitalism creatively interacting with each other. In both senses, it gives us a chance to practice critique from the middle, to make something happen in the middle of it all, to make an event of critique.

But isn’t today a real crisis, not just another day, but a chance to critically investigate our world from within this moment of crisis? Perhaps, the point of asking about “the point of critique today” is that within a moment of crisis we can and should illuminate what we mean by the critic? After all, we know from our etymologies that the idea of crisis has its roots in the language of decision and judgement.15 From this, we know that moments of crisis are, therefore, moments for those with the skills to decide to step forward and within this we can motivate the critic to be drawn away from the arcane discussions of the “conditions of conditions” into the urgent terrain of judgement “today.” Perhaps, “critique today” is fundamentally a problem about the status of the critical subject. Of course, there are plenty of individuals and collectives that facilitate criticism, subject positions within established ideological frames of reference, that make powerful and meaningful interventions, for their constituencies, in the world; making the world a better place, no doubt, for many. However, critique that rested content with an established understanding of the critic would install within itself a ground beyond critique that would ultimately unravel the aims of this creative practice, as demonstrated by Kant’s resolution of critique in a transcendental conception of subjectivity. The Kantian critical subject, therefore, is no longer available to us. Moreover, there is no subjective basis for judgement and decision, individual or collective, that remains available for the service of critique. Of course, this needs some unpacking and in order to do so we can turn again to Foucault and Deleuze.

Since, at least, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish we have understood the idea that sovereign forms of power mutated into disciplinary forms. As the demands for individual bourgeois freedoms led to the revolutionary overthrow of the old sovereign order, so the new forms of disciplinary power needed to be established in the name of order and, of course, of profit. As Foucault so elegantly expressed it, “the Enlightenment, which discovered the liberties also invented the disciplines.”16 According to Foucault, it was necessary to bolster bourgeois individual freedoms with a whole disciplinary apparatus that effectively made sure that these free subjects internalised the norms that would enable government to function and the economy to expand. Equally, we know that as they became established, these disciplinary forms of power engendered new modes of resistance. Foucault’s insight, therefore, was not just to present the shift from one form of power to another, but, in keeping with the history of the present, he also adumbrated the mode of resistance to such power in disciplinary societies, “today.” He gave this mode of resistance several names but the one that is most apposite is “transgression.”17 Transgressive subjects were those that broke out of the norms of disciplinary society, even if momentarily, to show that life could be lived in ways that refused to conform to the settled ideas of discipline in the name of liberty. Such transgressive subjects forged new ways of life, new perspectives on how we act and how we feel, or how we might change the world.

That said, as Deleuze puts it, we need a postscript to Foucault’s account of disciplinary power because even as Foucault was analysing disciplinary societies and the mode of resistance appropriate to them, he understood that they were already coming to a close.18 Foucault recognised that something else was emerging, and that transgressive forms of resistance were already becoming recuperated within new social formations. Deleuze, in keeping with his rhizomatic method, sought to explore the complexities of what disciplinary societies were becoming. Importantly, putting it this way is to acknowledge that the emergence of this new form of power is not a radical rupture: we must not replay the tendency to read into the present a rupture that guides thought away from the complexities of emergence, change, and transformation. Rather, Deleuze presents a brief but compelling picture of disciplinary power mutating in order to absorb the transgressive resistance it had engendered. As we reflect on what this means, we must first acknowledge that the emergent forms of post-disciplinary power have embraced the subjective basis of transgressive critical practice as part of itself. After Burroughs, Deleuze names this new emergent form of power, control; and the new modes of social reproduction that come with it, control societies.19

The key feature of a control society, therefore, is that it thrives upon transgression. This does, however, have a number of important consequences. Whereas disciplinary societies required individuals to adopt different subject positions at different times of life—“you’re not at school now, you know,” as Deleuze summarises it—control societies require us to be all things at all times—“you’re always at school, you know,” to offer a parallel linguistic marker. This is the form of social and political power that enables the permanent “transgression” of disciplinary institutions, but the at the cost of any single unified sense of self. This new form shifts social power from the task of subject formation to the task of subject fragmentation and then “controls” the elements of our “subjectivity” by keeping them in maximum tension with each other. Deleuze refers to these elements of ourselves as the “dividuated” parts, or “dividuals,” in contrast to a unified sense of our individuality. Encouraged to transgress the boundaries of our institutional life, we are then controlled into doing so at all times, so that now, general transgression is impossible. More to the point, in a control society we are fragmented to the point of there being no individual (or collective) subject position. Consider the reformulation of private and public space during the pandemic. Our private space is thoroughly embedded in public life and our public life has become increasingly privatised. This process of becoming pulls apart any sense of personal or collective subject that may engage critically with emergent forms of power. More technologically speaking, in a world characterised by the deep mining of big data, the flicker of an eye across the screen is just as important as the feet on the streets in a moment of protest. But does anything remain of critique if there is no critical subject to mediate crisis in a society of control? Deleuze offers no answers, but nor should he; as he puts it, it is a task for those who experience control to search out the new weapons to challenge it. Thinking about the complexities of “today,” however, it is telling that we are more interested in a curve than a person, in a projection than a summation, in a modulation rather than a moulding, and so forth. These are figures of the pandemic, for sure, but more importantly, they are figures of control rather than discipline. To that extent, however, they are also the figures that may inspire the critique of control, if “algorithmic governmentality”20 can be understood as epiphenomenal to a process philosophy of signs.21 In place of the critical subject, “today,” we find a critical process that can alter the modulations of our dividuated elements from within.

So, what is the point of critique, today? This short reflection has given us some pointers, albeit in largely polemical form. A negative summary would be this: the point of critique today is to reject all attempts to read the pandemic as a unique moment or as a feature of the world that somehow exemplifies its truth. A more positive summary would be this: the point of critique today is to overcome the stultifying indifference that results from relentless criticism by forging creative practices from within the middle of our emergent control societies.


IAIN MACKENZIE is a co-founder of the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent, and is currently a member of the Centre’s Advisory Board. Iain has recently authored Resistance and the Politics of Truth: Foucault, Deleuze, Badiou (transcript Verlag, 2018).


dePICTions volume 1 (2021): Pandemic Times

1. There is a tonal echo of Jacques Derrida’s remarks when reflecting upon “September 11,” see Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
2. While in agreement with Bruno Latour and Graham Harman with respect to the tendency of critical thought to both overdetermine and undermine phenomena, I see this as a methodological challenge rather than a reason to dismiss critical thought in the name of more Heideggerian matters of concern. See Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 225-48; Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object, Winchester: Zero Books, 2011.
3. The following remarks are not intended as a survey of genealogy as a critical method, rather a brief, almost polemical, account that can motivate our reflections on “the point of critique, today.” For primary texts by Foucault, the following are a good starting point: Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980; “Nietzsche, genealogy, history,” in Paul Rabinow and Nicholas Rose (eds.), The Essential Foucault, New York: New Press, 2003, 351-369. For further expansion of what is meant by a critical method see: Iain MacKenzie and Robert Porter, Dramatizing the Political: Deleuze and Guattari, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 34-37.
4. This phrase appears in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin, 1977. For a comprehensive review of its many meanings, see David Garland, “What is a ‘history of the present’? On Foucault’s genealogies and their critical preconditions,” Punishment and Society, 6.4 (2014), 365-384.
5. This framing elides the more nuanced differences between genealogy and historical materialism that a fuller discussion would invite.
6. Michel Foucault, “Questions of Method,” Power: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, volume 3, edited by James D. Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley et al., London: Penguin Books, 2002, 223-238.
7. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, volume 2, translated by Brian Massumi, London: The Athlone Press, 1988.
8. There is, of course, debate about the complementarity of these approaches. An excellent summary of key issues and detailed analyses of these can be found here: Constantin V. Boundas (ed.), Rhizomatics, Genealogy, Deconstruction: Deleuze/Guattari, Foucault, Derrida, special issue of Angelaki 5.2 (2000).
9. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 6.
10. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II, translated by Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Eliot Ross Albert, London: Continuum, 1987, 39.
11. Immanuel Kant, “Preface to the First Edition,” Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Werner S. Pluhar,  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996.
12. Many of the issues surveyed rather quickly here are elaborated more effectively in my “Critique in an Age of Indifference,” Theory and Event (forthcoming).
13. Putting it this way is in recognition of Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche which argues that Nietzsche turned Kant’s partial critique into total critique, see Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, translated by Hugh Tomlison, London: The Athlone Press, 1986. This position does, of course, require that we understand both Nietzsche and Deleuze as inheritors of Kant’s critical project. Exploring this inheritance, I have argued for a further enhancement of the idea of total critique in order to make it “pure”: The Idea of Pure Critique, London: Continuum, 2004.
14. See, for example: Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, and Rosi Braidotti, “Posthuman Affirmative Politics,” in S.E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė  (eds.), Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political and Performative Strategies, London: Routledge, 2015, 30-56.
15. It was this etymology that engendered many of the interesting reflections upon the financial crisis usually dated as starting in 2008.
16. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 222.
17. One can trace this theme throughout Foucault’s oeuvre but it is most evident at the high point of his genealogical studies in the 1970s, see Power/Knowledge.
18. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, 177-182.
19. A fuller exposition and clarification of key issues in this paragraph and those that follow can be found in Iain MacKenzie and Robert Porter, “Totalising Institutions, Critique and Resistance,” Contemporary Political Theory, 16 July 2019 [16 February 2021].
20. Antoinette Rouvroy, “The end(s) of critique: data behaviourism versus due process,” in Mireille Hildebrandt and Katja de Vries (eds.), Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn: Philosophers of Law Meet Philosophers of Technology, London: Routledge, 2012, 143-168.
21. In “Totalizing Institutions, Critique and Resistance,” we draw out more fully the connection to James Williams’ book of this name: A Process Philosophy of Signs, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.