Cartography of critiques

[This cartography of critiques has been “cooking” on the slow burner of the GTDF kitchen for a while now: we have been testing it in different contexts as we slowly refine it. However, we have received a few requests to make it public, even if we think it is still a bit “raw”. Therefore, take this early version with a warning that it may require further cooking and make your stomach upset. We are not sure, for example, if the metaphors we use of barking, growling, stomping and steering are the best ones. Please also note that this text will be revised as we stir the slow cooking pot.]

While critical engagements are often framed as efforts to “speak truth to power,” many of us have had the experience of offering a critique that doesn’t “land” amongst those in power, and thus, has little impact in terms of interrupting or challenging business as usual. In other words, even when we articulate what we want to say, the audience we are speaking to is often unable to hear it, either because they “can’t” hear it (it is unintelligible to them), or simply because they don’t want to hear it (it is too costly for them to hear, and they prefer to ignore it). This can be frustrating, and lead us either to assert that critique more forcefully (which can easily lead to burn out), or to resign and just give up, assuming it’s a waste of time.

Yet even amongst those who generally agree that our existing institutions are ultimately “beyond reform,” there are many possible ways to relate to and strategically navigate these institutions for as long as they continue to exist. Within the GTDF Collective, our members have a range of different responses to mainstream institutions, from those who have decided to exit or refuse the institutions entirely, to those who have chosen hacking and hospicing from within institutions. Hacking and hospicing entail working within institutions for as long as these institutions continue to exist, trying: 1) to do what you can to reduce harm (for those within and those outside who are negatively affected by institutional power), 2) to redirect and redistribute resources in the short term, and 3) to strengthen organizational capacity for moving toward deeper forms of change in the long-term. 

In other words, we do not propose or advocate for one universal mode of critique, but rather seek to develop the discernment to choose responsibly among many different possibilities for critical intervention. The critique we chose to mobilize in any given context is generally based on a number of factors, including an assessment of the intended audience of the critique, and “6 Ms”: 

  1. the message (what needs to be said to the audience that has a chance to “land”)
  2. the messenger (who is most likely to be heard by the audience)
  3. the motivation (why is or would the audience be interested)
  4. the method or medium of communication (what delivery method is most likely to land with audience)
  5. the mood (which “vibe” is most appropriate for the audience, given the affective landscape), and,
  6. the moon (the timing, context or readiness of the audience to hear certain things)

To be able to assess the 6 Ms requires that we learn how to read a context, and how we are being read – including navigating the many different relevant layers that are at play at any one time.

In this sense, we approach critical engagement with an emphasis on discerning what needs to be said in order to move what is ‘stuck’ in harmful patterns or feedback loops, rather than what we want to say (i.e. our personal desires to describe and prescribe, based on our perceived entitlements to authority, autonomy and arbitration). Rather than focus on offering critique in a particular form, we focus on how different kinds of critique can mobilize movement away from harm and toward more accountable possibilities for social organizational change. In this process, we seek to protect the integrity of the work itself, as well as our own individual integrity as people engaged in this work. We have also found that it is helpful to consider the generative interplay between multiple strategies for critical intervention – activating an ecology of different kinds of critiques, rather than limiting ourselves to one static approach. 

Below, we offer a cartography of four different modes of institutional critique before reviewing a bit how they can work together to mobilize change, and also where they can each get stuck:

The barking critique: The barking critique offers a high-volume warning of disapproval and an indication of refusal of institutional engagement (refusal to offer time and energy to the institution). Offering a critique in this way may be an effort to protect one’s time and space when it is felt that energies are best spent working in spaces and communities outside of the institution. While an institution may hear the frustration of this critique, it may not understand what is being said or why. If we think about the barking critique in terms of an institutional decision-making table, this critique generally refuses the table.

The growling critique: The growling critique is also a warning of disapproval like the barking critique, but at a lower volume. It is not necessarily an indication of refusal, as engagement may be on the table if certain demands are met. The critique signals dissatisfaction with business as usual, mistrust of those with the most power, and desire for substantive, not just cosmetic, change. The growling critique may be offered in institutional spaces, but is often relegated to the margins. This critique and its demands tend to be perceived as unrealistic or unreasonable, especially as the growling critique is articulated in a way that is not focused on how it will be read by those in power, and instead is more focused on expressing solidarity with the barking critique. Institutions may seek to appease those offering a growling critique by offering cosmetic changes that appear on the surface to be responsive to the articulated concerns, but ultimately this is perceived as insufficient from the perspective of a barking critique, and in many cases from the perspective of the growling critique as well. At the institutional decision-making table, this critique is generally relegated to the edge of the table.

The stomping critique: The stomping critique tends to emphasize that the institution has not gone far enough with their commitment to change, but it may be perceived as less disruptive than the growling critique. The critique is somewhat calibrated to what the person offering it senses will be intelligible in a given context. The stomping critique is often focused on trying to direct institutional attention to the barking and the growling critique. Sometimes those offering this critique will be focused on a specific intervention towards change; at other times, they will focus on achieving an interruption of business as usual, so that the barking and growling critiques can be heard. The stomping approach to critical engagement may be equally frustrating to those with institutional power (who think it goes too far in its critique), as well as those with the least power (who think the critique does not go far enough). With regard to an institutional decision-making table, this approach seeks to pause what is happening at the table.

The steering critique: The steering critique tends to focus on translation of the prior three critiques to those with the most institutional power. Even when the overall analyses and intentions of this critique aligns with the barking, growling, and stomping critiques, it is focused on which elements of these critiques will be perceived as compelling and consequential to those with the most decision-making power at a specific point in time (they are more attuned to the mood and the moon – what, from the critiques, can actually “land” with a lot of translation and a bit of political wit). It is often the case that, in order to be intelligible to those in power, steering critiques are articulated in ways that bracket certain implications or complexities, but in a way that  also tries to maintain a commitment to honor the orienting direction of the work and to keep things moving, an inch at a time, or more if the context allows. This approach to critique is often focused on making clear the risks involved if an organization does not respond to the concerns articulated in the barking, growling, and stomping critiques, but it does so with less of an accusatory charge than is commonly present in these other critiques, based on a sense that the concerns are more likely to be “digested” by those in power without this charge. At the institutional decision-making table, this critique seeks to reorient the table.

Generally, the barking and growling critiques seek to achieve change by being enough of an inconvenience that the institution is unable to ignore them entirely  – for instance, if this could result in reputational damage for the institution. The emphasis is on transgression, and speaking back to power with enough bravado to make sure that the critiques are not ignored. While this transgressive approach can draw the attention of the institution, it can also be easily dismissed by those who feel it is too aggressive, uncompromising, or uncollegial. Meanwhile, the stomping and steering critiques are often focused on discerning how the barking and growling critiques can “land” with those in power, by focusing on how to strategically navigate the intellectual, affective, and relational dimensions at play in any given context. The work involved in crafting the stomping and steering critiques generally happens more “backstage” than the barking and growling critiques. The strategies of stomping and steering may not achieve the stated goals of their critiques, at least not in any immediate sense. Engaging critique in these ways also runs the risk of compromising the work or oneself in ways that are not warranted (it is difficult to tell when you are playing the game or being played by it). Because of this, we have developed a set of hyper-self-reflexivity questions that can especially help those offering stomping and steering critiques to craft and calibrate their interventions in contextually-relevant ways, socially accountable ways. If interventions organized around stomping and steering critiques are calibrated appropriately and responsibly, then they can enable change by “hacking” the institution from the inside, rather than waging a frontal assault.

Some people feel that these different approaches to critique are competing for a platform or for one position to be affirmed over the others as the most righteous, morally defensible, pragmatic, or effective. However, within GTDF we have come to think of these different critiques as both indispensable and insufficient parts of an ecology of critical interventions that can work strategically together toward a common goal of organizational change away from harm and toward accountability.  One does not need to adopt a single approach to intervention, but rather can mobilize different styles of critique depending on the context – for instance, offering a barking or growling critique in relation to one issue, and a steering critique in relation to another. However, this strategic use of different critiques can be difficult (or impossible) to do if one is operating from desires for purity, single answers, an avant-garde positionality, moral high-grounds and/or identity-coherence. We also acknowledge the high price that is often paid by those who engage in barking and growling critiques, while at the same time we recognize that this price may be used as leverage towards a form of political exceptionalism and circularity that recreates many of the same patterns that have brought us to this mess we currently find ourselves in. 

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