Jun 30, 2020
It’s a time for speaking out: for dismantling and rebuilding alike. 2020 is full of both critique and repair, in the rhetorical sense—and beyond, of course, but let’s stick with the rhetorical for a minute.
In my country, the urgent vibrancy of critique has been born of COVID calamity of every kind, and born of a new spotlight on an enduring pattern of unspeakable violence against black folks. We’re seeing critique in the public sphere: criticism of leadership, of the weaknesses in our infrastructural systems, of our cultural confusion about acting collectively. Critique is alive and well (thank goodness!). What are its modes of action? Critique unmasks hidden or suppressed realities. It reveals ugly truths. It subverts or even negates mainstream or inherited or lazy narratives. We’re seeing its vivid power in every variety: in words and images, in books and popular culture, and naturally, on social media. It’s a beautiful (and alternately wrenching, and always vital) thing to witness.
We’re also seeing rhetorical acts of repair: proposals for new worlds that might be prototyped anew in the wake of disaster. There are calls for new models of business and medicine and education, newly flexible work structures, new forms of architecture and urban planning, new service models for community safety. The longer work of these reparative ideas has yet to be tested, but if we stay with just the rhetorical—these first acts of naming and calling for repair—we can identify its complementary modes of action. Repair language suggests new futures. It invites possibility. Perhaps it translates ideas from the past that might be reinvigorated or more accessibly understood, or perhaps it enchants by asking: what if? What if this new different thing could come to life?
I’m interested in both critique and repair language (and in the deeds of both, too, always), and I’m interested in more people getting clearer about which post they tend to occupy. Both are necessary, and neither is sufficient on its own for the work of social change. Our inner disposition usually tends one way or the other, and of course, it’s all too easy to make our own individual post into the only post, or the more correct or righteous post. Or to cast doubt on the authenticity of the other.
But understanding each mode as a post—as a vantage with a view of the horizon that is necessarily partial, with particular assets and with unavoidable drawbacks—is one way to sidestep the often corrosive debates about “civility” that tend to explode in urgent times. Instead of policing the tone of others, wanting either less or more anger, less or more imagination and kindness, we might instead ask: What is my post? And what might be the alternate, equally productive posts of others, the ones who may well be moving toward a shared horizon? We don’t have to be the same. Each project is different, its actions and its affordances. By occupying one, you gain some things and you lose some things—and by occupying the other, the same is also true.
Now—must we choose? Is the critique OR repair choice even necessary here? Lots of people will say: critique is the necessary first step that leads to repair. Or: ideally we do both, be both, in good measure and in tandem. But I’d wager that most people rehearse and exercise one far more than the other, and most people have too little equanimity about the mode that’s least natural to them. Perhaps we experience the dopamine hit in the words of critique, given that it’s the most algorithmically rewarded approach, and it therefore becomes the only rhetorical habit we seek. Or perhaps we’re too brazen, too breezy and sunny in our instincts for repair, making us impatient with the slow, hard work of change.
So then, what to do? Perhaps we better welcome and amplify the white-hot critiques, words that are not our own, sending them as much oxygen as possible. Perhaps we augment our own habits of critique, aloud and in public, with the modest, quieter reparative words in DMs and email and text: Keep going with the what-ifs. I’m with you.
No one has to do any of it, of course, and only some of this rhetorical work will be visible to the public eye. But to ask yourself: What is my post? is to acknowledge that your own ways of speaking up and speaking out are not the only ones. It might be otherwise.
**Update: Thanks to friends like Anne Galloway, Aimi Hamraie, and Amy Gaeta for reminding me about related texts, like Eve Sedgwick’s Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading and Sara Ahmed’s “Complaint as Diversity Work.” Lots more to unpack here. Still thinking it over.