critical thinking





The limits and potential of critical thinking as an end in itself - who and what for?



​Beth Dynowski

May 2019





Armen Avanessian in his 2017 book Overwrite: Ethics of Knowledge - Poetics of Existence turns the type of critique that persists within contemporary art and theory on its head - in the same vein as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their The New Spirit of Capitalism - stating that it is the very values of ‘creativity, critical thinking and independent research’ that the academy and artistic production defend that have shaped neoliberalism and have led to widespread depression and ‘feelings of insufficiency.’(1) He writes, to this day,


Think critically! Be yourself! Is the imperative addressed to Romantic youngsters who are ill equipped to oppose it…critical writing fails with alarming regularity to perform the ethical task of producing new subjectivities…in the eighteenth century, the appeal that blended a Protestant culture of writing with the modern maximisation of knowledge was, Write to become yourself! This task can still either be accepted as an ethopoeitic one or evaded by an aesthetic fashioning of the self….


This has grave consequences for the subjects who define themselves via their disciplines and in whom the discourse of the university produces the (untrue) knowledge proper to it. Their desire is aimed not so much at real knowledge as at what they take to be the object of their research. One phenotype encountered with increasing frequency comes from some sort of creative or artistic domain, ends up taking refuge in the university, and is perpetually on the verge of leaving again because the dream of obtaining the object (dance or cinema, say) is never fulfilled….(they) seek institutional security in the university (a security made all the more regressive by precaritization) – but these phenotypes never reach an ethical transformation through knowledge or truth, because they already underwent this transformation and its concomitant aesthetic experiences in their former creative existence. (2)



I would add to Avanessian’s argument, not only critical writing fails in this task, but often critical discursive methods for operating within and through art practice. It is the dominant mode used for training artists within art schools across the world that risks a continual self reflexive loop which can skew other rhythms and languages of living. Within my undergraduate education, the need to critically position myself and direct the movement of being/becoming towards and within the field in this way, once emancipating from other forms of work started to foreclose any meaning or any sense to be made. It was a joy and yet a kind of neurosis that was blocking discovering something perpetually out of reach – ‘…the most innovative thinking…is blocked by the kind of freedom espoused in art schools, that want to be autonomous, nomadic, counter-bureaucratic, partially curricular or non-curricular.’ (3) Avanessian argues that this ‘bad comprise’ in seeking out institutional security leads to false knowledge, self-exploitation and widespread depression. Juliane Rebentisch, drawing from Boltanski and Chiapello notes that the characteristic of the bohemian artist when massified takes on a different character, ‘…exceptional creativity thereby, of course, is toned down to a moderate inventiveness, and heroic melancholy diffuses into the depression of the masses.’(4) She continues,


Indeed, as one can learn from Ehrenberg, the steadily increasing symptoms of depression in Western capitalist societies have to be read as narcissistic personality disorders that point at least partly to the difficulties whereby individuals end up in concrete realities with real limitations as they attempt to comply with an idea of freedom that is as abstract as it is subjectivist. (5)


The academy within this becomes an object for resentment, envy and anger. Avanessian uses Lacan’s four discourses to think through why this might be (See diagram here). In Lacan’s formulas, the top layer represents the level of consciousness where an agent addresses an other, underneath this the lower layer represents what is on the threshold of consciousness which has a by product and then a hidden agent, which Lacan argues is the true agent. Using the discourse of the university, Avanessian argues that in this formula, where knowledge (agent) addresses truth (other), what is produced is the barred subject and the master signifier is the true agent. What this translates as is that the ‘subjugated academic bars itself from doing what the masters do - namely, to speak in its own name.’(6) It is in truth a master/slave dialectic. What might happen if we apply this to art education?(7)


Propositionally, if we use the discourse of the hysteric and apply it to the art school situation, in this discourse the barred subject (agent) addresses the master signifier (other). For the sake of thinking this through, let’s say the barred subject is the artist/art student and in this case the master signifier is the lecturer/art school. Under the threshold of consciousness what is produced in this formula, in the place of the byproduct is knowledge and in the place of the hidden agent the object petit a (jouissance). This byproduct/knowledge, could be thought of as where the place of art learning and/or art education (important distinctions to be made) takes place, what is always hidden but driving the discourse is the unattainable object of desire i.e. which translates as...I am incapable of knowing what it is that drives me, it must remain hidden. The origin and end in the discourse is not the pursuit of knowledge, but of jouissance. Art educator Dennis Atkinson claims that art education can lead to real learning, in a Lacanian sense,


I argue that art practice and educational practice both imply a process of real learning (Atkinson 2011). This notion draws upon the Lacanian Real in the sense that real learning involves a disruption of established epistemological, expressive or representational orders, and a projection into a new or modified orders; it precipitates a shift into new or modified epistemological and ontological worlds. (8)


Following Lacan’s discourses and Lacanian thought, there is a tension in whether this can take place unless the discourse of the Analyst is at play (which Lacan understood as the only authentic and consistent of the four.)


A full engagement with the relation between the artist, teacher and psychoanalysis is ripe ground for further exploration which time here, does not allow for. However, learning from psychoanalysis on what the effects of different pedagogical relations and sites might have on artists/students is key. It is particularly worth considering the effect on those from backgrounds that feel the direct effects of economic inequality most acutely. As David Cross writes,


…today, the student’s journey to becoming an artist combines learning as a conscious process of identity formation with the hidden forces of economic inequality under neoliberalism. Within the ‘artworld’ these forces take in a particular psychological intensity….as a symptom of class difference, economic inequality is cloaked in embarrassment, envy and resentment, giving it an invisibility that allows it to escape critical interrogation...(9)


The process of making art in art schools is so close to, confused and muddled with self-exploration and identity formation and at the same time, self-exploitation and the deconstruction of identity, all within the context of contemporary art - an aesthetic, social and economic field formed by a relatively homogeneous segment of the population. Personal biography is neutered in service of an institutional one. It is quite different from the liberation that can come from controlling one’s own narrative, which has been historically alive and well in more popular art forms such as music. It is a discipline that gives rise to but keeps visceral emotion at bay, unless it can be spoken about it as affect from a critical distance (White 2017, Gorton 2007, Ahmed 2004, Brennan 2004). As Cross continues, 'Compounding the problem, a new orthodoxy of positive thinking in the university, the art school and beyond encourages people to suppress negative thoughts and feelings, accept what is being done, and share forward looking narratives.’(10) The rise of the self organised art school in some cases, refuses this narrative, disrupts it by its fact of being there if its aims are wider than that of soft career collectives. However, the repression of discussion around socio-economic inequality still exists for anyone operating within the field.


The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion building on from Lacan and Klein, adds knowledge to the two greatest forces at play in our identity formation – love and hate – which he represents as K (knowledge) that acts as a container and –K the negative relation to this, the uncontained and the inability to know which is often tied to a situation in childhood where our unbearable feelings could not be held (which he typically points to as the mother).(11) Taking the -K as a concept to put to use here, thinking of our negative capability in relation to knowledge, our inability to know, a limit-experience. The lack of understanding around the close relationship between identity formation, self-knowledge, teaching and art and the place of critical thinking within this - whether it be a rejection of this way of working or head on engagement with it - runs varying degrees of risk. Writing about the intersection between art, critique and psychoanalysis, Andrea Fraser writes,


...psychoanalysis can only proceed with a total suspension of censorship, judgement and what he calls the ‘critical faculty’. Not only are analyst and patient alike barred from making critical judgements about what arises, but thy should not proceed with a specific aim or goal, not even a cure or the alleviation of suffering (i.e. therapy). The only aim can be self-knowledge. All other aims, judgements, and criteria are only impediments that will end up serving repression. (12)


And Robert Filou some 50 years earlier,


The alienation of the young reflects the alienation of adults. Some of the reasons for the alienation of adults: OVERSPECIALIZATION, SELF-ANALYSIS, SELF-EXPLANATION, LOSS OF CREATIVENESS, LACK OF A GIFT FOR LIVING, our sanity is madness and our madness is madness. Some of the reasons for the alienation of the young: LACK OF TRAINING IN SELF-EXPRESSION…- LACK OF WAYS TO KEEP THE SYSTEM AT BAY – MISDIRECTION OF SEXUAL DRIVE. (13)



Avanessian's writing and other similar efforts all attempt to write themselves into existence, through these issues, and out of the institution, into an ethics of being only to be embraced by the institution for that very writing. This is the irony that philosopher and dancer Erin Manning’s recent lecture showed painfully, which she wrote as her resignation for the university only to be told it wouldn’t be accepted. Manning’s book The Minor Gesture performs a similar function as Harney & Moten’s The Undercommons in that it legitimises other ways of coming to know the world and other understandings of intellect, advocating for a better understanding of neurodiversity and challenges what she calls the ‘agency-volition-intentionality’ triad as a prerequisite for knowing and acting in the world.(14) She sees the minor as what varies and the major as what is fixed, and that both are capable of affecting experience. In the way that Rancière sees art as capable of dissensus because it redistributes our sensory understanding of the world, Manning sees art as capable of doing this through the minor gesture. How this is then applied to art is where we can challenge the neurotypical way of producing and experiencing them. Manning asks us how neurodiversity can these open up our perceptual field and how can one might rethink their own relation to this? For example, how might it be recognised that, quoting Franco Bifo Berardi ‘...pathology is not something to be undervalued?’(15) Manning challenges our notion of which subjects are capable of knowing and contributing to knowledge.


How might this be addressed further? Philosopher Joris Vlieghe uses Judith Butler and Michel Foucault to think through limit-experience and critical education. He posits that ‘..suspension of judgment could, as Foucault suggests, also be understood as educational in and of itself.’ (16) This is not to say that criticality should be replaced by suspension of judgement, but to think of the limits of relying so heavily on our critical faculties that Fraser, Filou and Foucault suggest. Vileghe writes,


Education, as Foucault tells us, is perhaps not about leading young people toward a future world we as educators believe to be more just or humane, but about the experience itself that, indeed, everything can be different. We can think and live otherwise, and to experience this is an intrinsically educational moment. We get “educated” in the etymologically original sense of this word: we are being “lead out”, we are exposed, we are out of position. Education is no project that is instrumental to an already established objective, such as social justice, but rather something that refers to the possibility of “limit experience.” (17)


This is a fragile, nuanced way of being, a place to come from rather than to. Something that cuts through the forms of education, wherever they are placed, that could only be embodied and lived in close proximity between individuals in a given situation. How to think through limit experiences – boredom, mental illness, apathy, anger, desire, extreme comfort, fear – to be led out and through them?



(1) Avanessian, Armen Overwrite: Ethics of Knowledge – Poetics of Existence (Berlin: Sternberg Press 2017)

(2) Ibid, p.128

(3) Madoff, Steven Henry Art Schools: Propositions for the 21st Century (Boston: MIT Press 2009)

(4) Rebentisch, Juliane ‘The Contemporaneity of Contemporary Art’ https://transaestheticsfoundationdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/rebentischjuliane-contemporaneity_contemporaryart.pdf p227

(5) Ibid.

(6) Avanessian, Armen Overwrite: Ethics of Knowledge – Poetics of Existence (Berlin: Sternberg Press 2017) p.129

(7) See also Carl Cederström & Casper Hoedemaekers (eds) Lacan and Organisation (2010) for how they apply this to business education.

(8) Atkinson, Dennis in Ed. Jagodzinski, Jan What is Art education after Deleuze and Guattari? (Palgrave Macmillan: US 2017)) p.144

(9) Cross, David ‘Never Let Me Go’ in Distributed (Open Editions: Amsterdam 2018) p.43-44

(10) Ibid. p.45

(11) Bion, W.R. (1963). Elements of Psychoanalysis (Heinemann: London 1963)

(12) Fraser, Andrea in Eds. Sidsel Meineche Hansen & Tom Vandeputte Politics of Study (Open Editions: Amsterdam 2015) p.78

(13) Filou, Robert Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts () p.19

(14) Manning, Erin The Minor Gesture (Durham: Duke University Press 2016)

(15) Berardi , Franco Bifo 2008: 158 in Manning, Erin The Minor Gesture (Durham: Duke University Press 2016)

(16) Vlieghe, Joris 'Judith Butler and the Public Dimension of the Body: Education, Critique and Corporeal Vulnerability' in Journal of Philosophy of Education 44 (1):153-170 (2010)

(17) Ibid.




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