During its long history, psychoanalytical theory has developed a criticism dealing with almost the entire domain of human culture and civilization. That theory lays bare the unconscious motives and structures which, on the conscious level, can have all kinds of pernicious effects. The weak point of that criticism, however, consists in its awareness that the unconscious motives and structures it brings to consciousness, after its critical analysis, will remain unconscious and repressed. In that sense, psychoanalytical theory performs a critique of criticism as such. Unmasking falsity and lies does not necessarily result in establishing truth.
This essay outlines the contours of such a psychoanalytical ‘critique of criticism as such’, as well as its implications for contemporary critical thought in general. The essay more precisely focuses on the right-wing cultural criticism, which makes use of criticism’s newly discovered ‘tragic condition’ in order to support a conservative ethical, cultural and political programme. This essay proposes a few points of reference replying to these tendencies in contemporary critical thought.
In Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), psychoanalysis is deployed as a critical method to analyze the use of signs in contemporary mass culture in France. Barthes claims that society is permeated by petty bourgeois myths representing phenomena which are basically historical as natural and universal. He wrote his famous ‘mythologies’ to criticize this misrepresentation of the world. In order to develop his mythological criticism, Barthes relies on psychoanalysis, specifically, on Freud’s theory of dreams. At first sight, the socio-critical concept of ‘myth’ in the guise of ‘dream’ appears to be used to challenge the ruling ideology by contesting its presumed rational nature. Critics like Barthes, however, are depicted by the petty bourgeois media as magicians pontificating about the world with discourses (inspired by, for example, psychoanalysis) that can hardly be understood by ordinary people. Both myth and magic appear to be discursive weapons by which both camps attack each other. Yet, after close analysis, it can be demonstrated that, for Barthes, the mythologist has to be susceptible to the magical as well, if, as a critic, he wishes to obtain a total view of reality. The problem of the mythical, however, persists as a symptom of a more profound crisis of society equally stuck to the practice of the mythologist.