Critique and innovation

Are critique and innovation the same thing?

On Nettime, Prem Chandavarkar argues they are different, but co-existing:

The avant-garde are (to use a term from Thomas Kuhn) paradigm

shifters. Their work consists of two facets that operate

simultaneously. One is a deep critique of current paradigms of

cultural production. And the other is production of artistic work

that demonstrates a new paradigm and a new set of possibilities. One

cannot privilege either of these facets saying it is primary, and

the other derives from it – the relationship between the two is far

more complex. However the two always go together

Momus thinks, in a weaker version, that they can be:

Sometimes satire and innovation are the same thing. Everything is chugging along just fine in a discipline — pop music, design, whatever. There are norms, habits, maxims. It all looks like common sense, although in fact it’s just repetition and conformity. Then — bang! — out jump these jokers who mock the whole thing, send it up because they’re not really invested in it, terribly bored by it, and have no jobs and nothing to lose…They want to change the paradigms and put themselves at the centre of a new way of doing things. And on their mockery they build something good, against all the odds. You have to knock something down before you can build something new.

You’ll often find hints of a stronger argument from those who work through the form of criticism, or who praise it (these two unsurprisingly tend to coexist). But I’m not sure many quite cross the chasm — they may convince me that critique is a Good Thing, or that it creates conditions which favour change. But a gulf remains between that and making the change happen.

So in drama, Brecht gives us the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. This argues that critical drama should shun the euphoric escapism on offer from purely entertainment-oriented theatre. Rather, jolt the audience awake by showing them the weirdness of the present. We watch Charlie Chaplin eating a boot, for example, with great concern for his table manners. Thus we see the artificiality and the limits of, for example, our customs around eating.

Or take the cluster of thinkers around Critical Theory — anybody from Adorno through to Judith Butler. Here the focus is on the politics of words, on laying bare the hidden meaning of the present. Again, this can demonstrate what is wrong with the present — the operation of power, the closed-off areas of the unsayable. Perhaps it opens up new possibilities of expression. But does it force them?

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