Freedoms and Wastelands

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

Here’s a little fable about a critic.

You can be anybody from this part of the world. Your destiny is always the same, if you choose not to obey the rules. For as long as you do not put your hands onto something that is considered to be a sacred cow, you will be applauded, you will get praise from the round Earth’s imagin’d corners. Still when, for the first time, you say something that is not to the liking of the instances above, the wrath will be upon you. Ok, that is to be expected. You are a brave practitioner of critique, you are the critic, so fight, get into the boxing ring, do not surrender, be voluntarily insubordinate, for god’s sake. And things are looking great, your stance is firm, your composure too, you have stamina, you suffer a bit, but you can throw a punch, an uppercut, a direct hit. You are boxing for quite a few rounds, and your opponent is starting to change tactics. He starts complaining to the judges. There are no judges, you say, but yes, there are. They are not always in white, or in stripes, they are not always in there with the two of you (have I said that there are two of you in between those ropes? I don’t remember), but they are very much present. A fierce text or two, strong and argued judgments here and there, a polemic with him or her, and the judges slowly starting to appear.

You are no longer receiving the books for the reviewing. That is the first low punch that you will be thrown. Ok, you are trying the other way around. You made a friend or two along the way. So you will be getting books all right, even if you have to buy them. But then they are (always these no name kinds of characters) talking to your editor, telling him that you have to slow down. You cannot go around breaking everything, like a bull in a china shop. There is an order, and there is the law, and you have to learn.

These kind of talks do not concern you. You are still up to it. They just make you angry, and you are even more ruthless, and you are right. Then, after a short while, the editor-in-chief calls upon your editor and says that’s it – I’ve had enough of him, and of literary criticism all together. So you are out on the street. But that’s not the end. There are friends who are counting on you, and they are willing to help. Always those dear independent media, with all the know-how and almost religious beliefs and ideals. You are in the front seat again. However, there is a catch. You won’t be receiving any money for your work, because there is none, and when there is some, you are at the other end of the pecking order. But how am I to survive, you ask? The judges laugh. Your composure and your stance are not as firm as they were. You are weary. You are tired.

Then, all of a sudden, an editor from this big publishing house calls up. She can help. She knows the trade. She had been in your shoes many, many times. You are feeling a burst of energy. You are happy, ready to step up with the work, and everything is fine, for the time being. But then, one day she calls up and asks for a favor. And you cannot say no, because you owe her. And she laughs with the judges. You turn around, and there is nothing behind you. You did not manage to create anything, least of all a successor. The imaginary enemy of bad writing and literary mediocrity, with whom you’d been fighting, is still there, stronger than ever, and the boxing ring is empty. There is no one who is willing to fight under those conditions, knowing he going to lose eventually. And the judges laugh.

According to Foucault and Judith Butler (who is following his steps), critique should be freedom, should be virtue. Of course, both Foucault and Butler were and still are right, in an ideal world. However, the practicing of any kind of criticism, including a Kantian one, that of pure reason, is nowadays rather overshadowed by the very mechanisms of the amorphous force that Foucault himself called power (Puissance). The power has a variety of manifestations, but there is one thing in common for all of them – they are trying to control us, moreover, in most cases they are managing to do so, as I tried to show in the little fable above.

Although it is kind of a simplistic view on the nature of the things, I would like to point out that critique en general is losing its edge, and that it is deliberate. The mechanisms for this weakening are derived through creating what I would call a false public sphere. I am thinking about the social media, and all the “freedom of speech” that it created. Just to be clear, I am not against the freedom of speech, god forbid, but freedom should be related to responsibility. In other words, there is no freedom without responsibility. However, social media, which is now widely understood as the public sphere is, more often than not, completely devoid of any responsibility. For instance, one can have false Facebook and/or Twitter profiles, and/or one can write in the comments section under a pseudonym and, in that manner, create public opinion. Quantity does not always mean quality, but still, it is an ideal field for manipulation. One cannot forget the fact that, although nowadays almost everyone can use, and does use, the internet and social media, one way or the other, the vast majority of users are not information literate. That means that they cannot use the information they receive, and/or that they cannot derive something useful from the information they receive, and/or they cannot see through and beyond the information they receive. In other words, they are easily manipulated by the information.

All things taken into account, one can see the way in which critique is being strangled and pushed into the depths and wastelands of the public sphere, while we are hearing stories about democracy, human rights and freedom. Democracy cannot exist without critique, true human rights, and justice for all, it cannot exist in the world devoid of different opinions and reason. Or can it?! Think about it.

Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal and He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum,, He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC.