The Cost of Critique: In(ter)vention and Ethical Violence in Kristeva and Benjamin

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Culture, Theory and Critique



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© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. In this essay we argue that there is an important but frequently overlooked link between Walter Benjamin’s and Julia Kristeva’s attempts to explore new modes of critical practice. What connects Benjamin and Kristeva, in our account, is a vital concern with the cost of critique, that is, with the question whether critical agency in its most productive modes is inherently related to certain forms of ethical violence. We aim to show that, once we read them together, these authors’ pivotal contribution consists of offering an alternative model of critique animated by an ethos of in(ter)-vention, which is keyed to techniques of criticism that are both disruptive and innovative. Ethical violence here refers to a strategic displacement of moral self-perception, which undercuts people’s aspirations toward maintaining a morally robust character in the face of political adversity and social injustice. To illustrate the stakes of such displacement, we turn to the figure of the ‘anti-journalist’ Karl Kraus whose in(ter)ventions display integrity in action rather than integrity of character. Specifically, under the rubric of ethical violence, we propose a dynamic interpretation of Kraus’ performance in terms of polemical witnessing, which combines the corrosive aspects of Benjamin’s ‘destructive character’ with the constructive aspects contained in Kristeva’s notions of ‘sharing singularity’ and ‘intimate revolt’.

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