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The trenchant rumbling in Martí Peran’s “What Criticism?” might remind one of Marx’s provocation, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” In both cases, the urgent moment of impasse presents the opening onto utopia.
Aesthetic experience today offers the prevailing “model of existence” – the “culture industry,” to use the old-fashioned term – in which “culture” becomes the production line and shopping mall of aesthetic goods and services. But, as Peran indicates, the aesthetic is an experience built on buyer’s remorse. Enjoyment, as the psychoanalysts like to point out, is already a symptomatic defense against its own beyond. Following the thread of Peran’s text, one could argue that the aesthetic experience – as the determinate negation of the existing – today functions as a defense against the critical spirit upon which the aesthetic dimension as such is based.
Peran’s polemic targets criticism today for its proportional investment in pluralism and relativism, as a mode of analysis and evaluation based on a passion for mere tolerance. Since art criticism is addressed to the aesthetic par excellence– namely, art – art criticism becomes the worthiest of targets. Peran distinguishes his call for the critical spirit from “the absurd accumulation of exquisite knowledge” – to be sure, a nonchalant accumulation of incompatible ideas. Rather, criticism should, Peran writes, articulate “effective instruction on: the absence of truth.”
This “absence of truth” is no doubt a call to reject the merely tolerant mind that neutralizes controversy. But the phrase also suggests a complementary meaning: the stipulation of truth as categorically absent. Surely, such a proposition presents a situation for which we are never “sufficiently equipped and prepared.” Pluralism reassures by simultaneously positivizing, relativizing, and reifying truth. By contrast, the utopic space of public discourse may in fact function as a space of absence, not merely because the truth must be revealed and directly told, nor because the space presents a neutral and empty common ground where interlocutors freely come and go choosing their own ideological adventure. The space of public discourse becomes a space of absence precisely because the truth is fundamentally an object and site of contest, wherein the stakes must be argued in the context of contradiction and controversy. Perhaps the proper image of truth here approaches Adorno’s prescription: “The splinter in the eye is the best magnifying glass.”