Perhaps one way to define modernity would be in terms of the spirit of criticism that animates it. To be modern is to be critical, and to be critical is to be modern. Criticism seems to the all-pervasive during modernity, the very engine of the modern project. Criticism presupposes questionalibility and a relentless quest for the conditions of emergence and existence of words ands things. It leaves nothing untouched by its spirit except for itself, since the spirit of criticism thrives on and presupposes its own unquestionability. Criticism questions, but cannot itself be questioned. Through such a denial of reflexivity by reflexivity, criticism can excercise and reinforce its own authority endlessly. Criticism forms an invisible empire to which everything that claims self-identity automatically becomes subject. There is no escape allowed, other than that which comes with the abnegation of all identity, which is exactly the prerogative claimed by criticism itself, which is faceless and omnipresent â€“ as a possibility and as an activity. Criticism is to modernity what theology was to the Middle Ages: a concrete universality, without center or boundaries.
We all know how it started, but not if and how it will end. Criticism â€“ understood as the questioning of the conditions of possible existence and knowledge â€“ started as a narrow epistemic concern in Kantâ€™s Kritik der Reinen Vernuft. To us addicted to this intellectual practice, it seems seductively simple. Just ask your self what must be the case in order for that which forms the object of criticism to be in place. Then ask yourself what must be in place in order for that which is the case to be the case. Then end by asking yourself if that which is the case is in place, and if that which is in place is the case. If there is a mismatch here, however slight, then you have made your case. You have performed a successful act of criticism, and by digging down into the modal conditions of knowing and being, you have also touched upon the fact that everything could be different from the way it happens to be, and that this experience is authorized by Man alone.
Now this gesture seems to know no fixed limits and can be expanded to cover everything that exists or is known, irrespective of whether it is known because it exists or exist because it is known. Criticism is ontologically and epistemically impartial, and happily sits judge of evertyhing brought within its purview. Add to this a crucial ingredient, such as a secular moral disapproval of that which happens to be in place or be the case, and we have turned criticism into the major vehicle of reform and revolution. It promises wholesale emancipation to everyone feeling oppressed by that which is in place or which is the case. Or add a distinct aesthetic sensibility that says no to beauty, and criticism turns out to spur incessant efforts to transcend the boundaries it imposes on creativity. If there are any limits to the activity of criticism â€“ and there are - they are imposed by criticism itself, on questioning its own foundations or its secret mission in the world.
The secret mission of criticism is to perpetuate authority by encouraging its transgression. It is perhaps no coincidence that the same philosopher who launched the critical project of modernity also eagerly imposed limits on it. As Kant stated in his Metaphysik der Sitten ,
[t]he origin of supreme power...is not discoverable by the people who are subject to it. In other words, the subject ought not to indulge in speculations about its origin with a view to acting upon them...Whether in fact an actual contract originally preceded their submission to the stateâ€™s authority, whether the power came first and the law only appeared after it, or whether they ought to have followed this order â€“ these are completely futile arguments for a people which is already subject to civil law, and they constitute a menace to the state.
Here we must raise a few questions, lest the above passage should remain opaque and enigmatic. If the ultimate sources of authority cannot be discovered, why is it necessary to prohibit speculation about them? Why forbid something that is impossible anyway? One obvious answer would be that since it indeed is fully possible to question the foundations of authority, it is necessary to make such questioning impossible by forbidding it, since if the ultimate sources of authority cannot be discovered, any such questioning cannot but lead to civil discord. But this answer merely invites a paradox, since it then would take authority to enforce the prohibition against questioning authority, an authority itself unquestionable. Thus, in order for authority to remain authoritative, it must be unquestionable, yet authority itself lacks the authority to impose such an unquestionability. This is the secret mission of criticism: by inviting ritual transgressions, it reproduces exactly what it presupposes: the presence of authority.
So behind the constant unveiling of the false realities of power and all its injustices lies a claim to power and justice, elevated above the domain of the unreal and unfair, always ready to unmask everything but itself. By exposing the foundations of all authority, criticism successfully claims an authority of its own, impossible to question since it is the condition of possible questionability. Through its ardent practice, everything supposedly foundational to sociopolitical order can be reduced to the mythic negation of that order: justice to violence, peace to war, freedom to slavery. To criticism, everything dear to the human condition emerges out of the base and vulgar, but has been veiled by the accidents of history to appear as pure to us, testifying to our own blindness and lack of spiritual nobility.
Criticism promises to restore those values in their original splendour, once the veil of corruption has been removed. Out of the ashes emerge a truth uncontaminated by ideology, an ethics devoid of prejudice, a justice without bias, a politics without domination. Criticism operates out of this assumption: everything that looks real and desirable is but a mask; underneath the mask lurks what is really real and really undesirable. We want transparence, therefore â€“ in order to regain purity and bliss â€“ we must let criticism reign unobstructed in the world of human creation.
But criticism cannot truly deliver upon its promises. Not only does it bestow a certain authority on those parts of being and knowing that have been subjected to its purifying rituals, but it does also effectively create what it sets out to demolish. By assuming that the targets of criticism are real as well as identical with themselves, the practice of criticism actually perpetuates what it criticizes. By reducing what is supposed to be real to another underlying allegedly more real reality, criticism always unwittingly breathes life into the former. For why should we feel threatened by a fiction in the first place? If the critical gesture is right, then all things prima facie desirable are but fictions invented to cover up for their unruly and impure origins. But are not those fictions which we desire real only by virtue of being accepted as fictions, and are they not fictions only by virtue of being taken as real? Criticism need and feeds on this basic distrust, however warranted. For it is only as long as these desirables â€“ among them truth and justice - are seen as deceptions that they can exercise any measurable influence over the innocent mind, by the longing they inspire and the lack they signify. If taken at face value, they would only be maintained by denial of their felt phoniness.
So criticism makes sense only as long as we stick to the distinction between appearance and reality, and sticking to this distinction invites a constant conflation upon which the critic is free to capitalize according to his or her own whims. Hovering between them, the critic can always declare what is most cherised to be but an appearance, and what is most depised to be the reality behind that appearance. This way, emancipation is said to follow upon transcendence, and with emancipation, a restoration of a reality free from superficiality and appearance. But unfortunately for the critic, reality is lost in this process. What we have, and what we have to life with as long as we schose to remain modern, are apperances bestowed with symbolic authority through incessant acts of criticism and their attendant claims to have laid bare the corrupt foundation and origin of things. Such is the authority of criticism: it makes us fear appearances in order to make us believe in reality, by orchestrating fear out belief. But to the same extent as appearances need not to be feared, reality stands in no need of belief other than as a precursor to doubt. A not so noble lie.