The Beautiful Soul of the Critical Academic

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly cautious about the orthodox sense of ‘critical’ within the social sciences. In large part this was motivated by Jana Bacevic’s important work, particularly their PhD, which helped me understand the relationship of exteriority involved in critique i.e. the stance of the critical subject is always at a distance from the world which is the object of their critique. This is significant for many reasons but it particularly helps us understand how critical academics routinely act in ways which reproduce the things they seek to critique. It has occurred to me more than once that this relates to the Hegelian idea of the beautiful soul:

The “beautiful soul, ” lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence, and dwelling in the immediacy of this firmly held antithesis-an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling the antithesis, which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness-this “beautiful soul,” then, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.

If I understand this correctly* Hegel is pointing to the tendency to imagine oneself as apart from a fallen world, uncontaminated by the ambiguous and difficult decisions which are an inevitable part of life within it. As Zizek once described it, “The ‘beautiful soul’ is a tender, aesethicized soul, too refined for the banality of the social world”. It positions what’s bad and unholy within the world as ‘out there’, at a distance which precludes any relationship of responsibility to it and suggests that problems could be resolved if only others adopted a similar stance towards the world. I wouldn’t suggest critique is necessarily the territory of beautiful souls but that beautiful souls are necessarily drawn towards critique because it offers a language, as well as an epistemic stance, which explains this distance in virtuous terms as a means to pierce the veil which conceals the perceptions of others. I’m not sure if Zizek links the ideas but it reminds me of his conception of contemporary cynicism: the over-valuation of subjective belief which leaves people objectively complicit with them.

There are many problems I have with this. The most practical is that it evades the question of practical reasoning. Once we have finished with critique, we remain within the world and forced to make choices within the parameters it presents us with. For example I get frustrated with critiques of platform capitalism which fail to account for the penetration of platforms into everyday life and the practical challenges this presents for those acting within particular spheres of social life. The obvious retort is that this reproduces a current state of affairs by acting as if it is a given but the idea that the realities of the world hinge on the representations of social scientists is clearly false as a casual claim. Lurking in the background I suspect is the beautiful soul’s fear of contamination. The risk I do accept is that it licenses a self-conscious pragmatism which precludes any sort of oppositional stance towards the world but I can’t see a reason why that is necessarily so. It suggests rather that we need a politicised conception of practical reasoning which can take a transformative attitude towards the world as a dimension of acting within it.

*I should add that what understanding I do have comes from Zizek’s reading of Hegel which I realise is far from uncontentious.

2 responses to “The Beautiful Soul of the Critical Academic”

  1. Very interesting, Mark. This is of utmost importance.

    Here are three links that contain some of my thoughts about critical thinking, linking it with the mode of production of academic tangible knowledge. They are a bit old (2013 and 2016). More recently, 2021, I have started to use the term “critical crafting”.

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