In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler shows how innovations in technology repattern the material conditions of intellectual production. With the typewriter, Fyodor Dostoevsky can dictate a novel to his secretary and develop a stream-of-consciousness style uniquely fit for an existentialist novel. A new medium begets a new message.
More fundamentally, technological innovations repattern the conceptual ontology that enables and forecloses what we can think. Surely, it is a coincidence, in the normal sense of arbitrary linkage, that the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903 and that Albert Einstein published the theory of general relativity not long after in 1905. And yet, that they are both symptoms of a shared tradition—a public culture of the living and the dead—would be hard to deny.
Thinking about genealogy amidst a pandemic, no less symptomatic, I cannot help but wonder toward an epidemiology of critique. What role does genealogy play in the patterning of critique’s conceptual ontology? And what does its distinctive pattern lead us to think and do?
Critique is an investigation into the conditions that produce the judgments we feel viscerally. Genealogy is inherent to critique because our judgments and feelings are products of the subjectivity we inherit. Critique finds much in family trees to diagnose. It goes beneath the skin and sees in flesh and blood an entire evolutionary history, which is always a history of violence. Blood is inherited, but also spilt.
Critique identifies, traces, and diagnoses. It quarantines and purges. It flees from the infected, who—sometimes—it tries to save. Through genealogy, we find that our forefathers have sinned, that their blood has become polluted, that they have passed on their bad blood, and that their bad blood is now ours to cleanse.
If this sounds very Christian, we should remember what Friedrich Nietzsche said about Christianity in his Genealogy of Morals: “[Its] bad conscience is an illness, there is no doubt about that, but an illness as pregnancy is an illness.” If Nietzsche is right, then the bad conscience of Christianity has gestated critique and its genealogical method. We are obviously sick again, but hopefully like pregnancy is a sickness.
Gil Anidjar shows in Blood, his hematology, that our metaphors’ materiality can pattern how we think and act. Blood is sometimes literal and sometimes metaphorical, but it is literal blood that provides the material logic which enables and forecloses how metaphorical blood pumps. Blood in-forms the conceptual ontology of critique.
Epidemiology studies illness and its causes, but also its spread and treatment. An epidemiology of critique investigates our work as genealogists by taking it too literally. It exaggerates, satirically, the materiality of genealogy’s metaphor and clarifies, sincerely, how it structures critique’s politics—its predisposition to quarantine, purge, and escape. Do we really understand the illness? Have we diagnosed correctly? Have our treatments done less harm than good?
Critique has its own genealogy, of course, which shows that critique need not depend solely on blood, but can also stand on ground. As Martin Heidegger performs in his late work, critique can think, too, with the earth.
Though for Karl Marx critique is a criticism of the grounds of criticism, it is never merely critical. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels destroy the Young Hegelians’ foundation and set them on the new ground of historical materialism. Revolution rids the world of capitalism, its immanent sin, so a new world can take its place. Marx lays the ground plan—the Grundrisse—so that the world can overcome its own destruction.
Marx’s metaphors are not yet hematopoietic, a term that describes how stem cells beget other blood cells. In Marx’s earthy, bloodless terms, thought begets world and world begets thought. Both are atoms, matter, so their alignment is critique’s goal: the end to our alienation from our sensuous species-life. The dialectical unfolding of material history is not yet a genealogy, so the antagonists of its teleology are not yet in the blood.
Critique owes its genealogical turn—and its turn to the self and to blood—to Nietzsche. Riding the will to truth, his Genealogy of Morals shows that normative judgments like good and bad are products of regimes of power. When Christianity prevailed, it revalued its ancient inheritance, setting it on new ground that is soaked with the blood of ressentiment.
After Nietzsche, there is nowhere solid left to stand; critique looks inward. Only through critique, or the self-consciousness of the will to truth, can hope emerge—only through the self-overcoming of the self’s own destruction.
At the very end of The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Michel Foucault prophesies the erasure of man in earthy terms, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” A few years later, in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” he abandons archaeology to take up Nietzsche’s bloody “sacrifice of the subject of knowledge.”
Foucault’s metaphorical shift to genealogy indexes a change in our attention from the dirty work of digging up a past that is never fully ours to the sterile blood analysis that tells us who we cannot help but be. Power permeates and patterns discourse, which is language and also movements, relations, and feelings. Prisons, hospitals, and bedrooms are sites of discursive production in which we as subjects become our selves. We have nowhere left to stand, but also nothing left to be.
Against an amoral reading of Foucault, Judith Butler argues in “What Is Critique?” that ethical virtue remains. In Foucault’s late work she finds the care of the self, an ancient practice of self-possession that resists authority that would possess us. Critique is key to this autonomic practice because it interrogates the inherited self, enabling it to recognize its own subjectivation as a repeated, imperfect performance.
“This subject,” Butler tells us, “is both crafted and crafting.” Working critically, self-possession takes hold in the gaps between the discursive ideal and discourse’s failure to create its own perfect subjects. The self is neither fully possessed nor fully in possession.
As Saba Mahmood points out in Politics of Piety, “Butler has had to defend herself against the charge, leveled against her by a range of feminists, that her work has the effect of undermining any agenda of progressive political and social reform by deconstructing the very conceptions of subject and power that enable it.” But Mahmood does not think Butler goes far enough. She critiques her “agonistic framework,” in which “norms suppress and/or are subverted, are reiterated and/or resignified.”
Mahmood resists the virtue of resistance and argues for the ethics of “docility.” She critiques western feminism’s anti-social tendencies and shows that in partial self-possession, we can will with authorities that partially possess us. In Mahmood’s genealogy, Aristotle is the common ancestor of Foucault’s positive ethics, Butler’s ethical virtue, and Egyptian Muslim piety, which all depend on the paradoxical emergence of the will through enabling constraints.
After Mahmood, critique finds no necessary wrong in oppression, which could simply be submission. Resistance is not inherently ethical, so our bound and wriggling selves can decide also to submit. To submit is in fact in our blood.
Critique, however, is restless. In resistance to resistance, neither Politics of Piety nor Religious Difference lie still. They work together in the critique of secularism, which is also a critique of liberalism, even if Marx’s secularism is illiberal.
The secularism of critique is clearly bloodborne. It passes through generations and transfuses through bloody violence. Talal Asad has argued that empiricism and rationality, abstraction and calculation are all infectious, even as they have spread into the logical argumentation and footnotes of the monographs that diagnose them.
If critique finds so much ostensibly bad blood in its own genealogy and if it cannot even see the apparently bad blood that infuses and informs its arguments, then the relationship between critique and genealogy is strange in a way that perhaps only an epidemiology can diagnose.
Strange, too, is that about eight percent of the human genome is viral DNA, which comes from invasive retroviruses. Also weird is that some of our genome is bacterial. The confusing part—for me—is how we talk about this microscopic but substantial part of ourselves that has long been medicine’s arch-nemesis.
If I share DNA with viruses, and it is my DNA, then why is it viral DNA? Let me ask an epidemiologically obvious question: am I a virus?
Obsessed with genealogy, critique is self-involved. Maybe a return to the earth can get our heads out of our veins and our feet back on the ground.
In Pluralism, William Connolly calls for “agonistic respect,” which accepts that we are atop the sediment of tradition. Standing on different ground is nearly the definition of disagreement. Respect means appreciating that disputes are inevitable and cooperation is messy work. It is this messiness that tells the lie of liberalism’s clean procedure.
In The Empire of Love, Elizabeth Povinelli draws a distinction between autological and genealogical societies in order to attend to late liberalism’s tension between self-possession and inherited constraints. More recently, in Geontologies, she introduces us to geontopower, which names the capitalist governance of earth that draws the boundary between Life and Nonlife.
Povinelli’s concepts are critical, not prescriptive, and developed in collaboration with indigenous Australians who resist the settler state. Her approach reveals the material logics that pattern complex asymmetries in power, though she does not recommend that we adopt them as our own.
An epidemiology attempts the same, stretching its metaphors beyond what they can contain to attend better to the role of diagnosis in the rampant spread of ostensible disease.
Like critique, genealogy remains vital. Ignoring our inheritance does not diminish its power. Still, as Anidjar has shown, too much blood is bad for our politics; and as others continue to show, thinking with the earth can be grounding.
Mixing metaphors is messy, but we should do it more often—just as we should keep talking about religion despite its manufacture. We have much to learn from activists who do the work by grabbing what they can without inquiring into the purity of its blood.