“Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kind of sin. Intellectual cruelty is certainly the worst kind of cruelty.”
G. K. Chesterton
Looking at the recent debacle surrounding the pseudo-debate of who is the most intellectually fit to interview Chris Kraus (whether it would be someone who could open the discussion up to a general interested audience or someone whose primary skill seems to be alienating audiences, but might have an obscure question about a possible influence on Kathy Acker no one had thought to ask about), I was struck with this gnawing sensation that comes whenever I witness a cruelty that seems to diminish the field of possibility to a ladder of pointless hierarchy. A cruelty I wish to call intellectual cruelty. This can perhaps be understood as a performative discourse that seeks to, if not formally, consider intellectual capacity as a quantifiable absolute. An essential quality to be defined by an individual’s ability to display familiarity with certain established modes of signification. I won’t comment further on the aforementioned debate here, as this is not a review of conceptual art (I’ve done that elsewhere), except to say that the intervention from Berlingske’s culture editor, Anne Sophie Hermansen, exemplifies intellectual cruelty and, while may appear subtle, thus cruelty actually functions best when it is pernicious.
On the one hand, I am inclined to say that what Hermansen wrote is only to be expected, she merely played her role in all this by defending her paper against criticism. However, on the other hand, the disingenuous way in which her response spins the criticisms levelled against Berlingske shows not only a contempt for her readers but contempt for the very notion that she and her institution should be subject to such criticism from a newly fashionable upstart writer. Hermansen’s remark “det ville også være absurd, hvis kunsten skulle underordnes kønnet” (“it would also be absurd if art were to be subordinate to gender”), in response the critique that Berlingske had pursued the cheap clicks of controversy rather than facilitating cultural debate, is not just intellectually lazy but, through it’s laziness, it is performatively dismissive. What gives the game away is the word underordnes (subordinate). For intellectual cruelty to work, all things must have their place in a hierarchy of importance. Some are high and transcendent, such as art, whereas others are modern banal filth, such as gender. If the former is made to engage with the latter it will inevitably be lessened.
But this line of thinking is rife with fallacies. No one would be able to coherently argue that art should be subordinate to gender because attempts to do so would run into constant category errors. Both art and gender are forms of expression but they each have radically different social requirements for engagement and consequences for deviation. It would be absurd to argue that one can live within a society such as ours without having always already expressed some relationship to the expression of gender, whereas expression through the kind of art written about in the newspaper is always particular. Instead, what people may coherently argue is that, in a world such as ours, if art is subordinate to gender, it is only because individual expressions of art tend to be expressed by someone who has expressed some relationship to gender. This is a temporal relationship more than a hierarchical one, however. To be mindful of this is not usefully considered subordination, as from whence would such an authority come?
This is intellectual cruelty: the use of the capacity of intelligence to delineate reality in such away that it increases your agency at the expense of others. A zero sum knowledge game.
This insistence on meaningless hierarchies displays a way of thinking about intellectual activity, work and life as if it were a quiz on which full marks could be attained. It claims that the act of intellectual inquiry must remain pure and abstruse, lest it be muddied by the unworthy and brought down to the level of commoners with their fixation on the relationship between their bodies and our social power structures. This is an understanding of intellectual capacity and possibility that reminds me of establishment foils in Monty Python sketches; something like a stern schoolmaster insisting on the importance of repeating Latin phrases while the building burns down, all the while refusing to let the groundskeeper with a fire extinguisher into the classrooms because of his dirty clothes.
Intellectual cruelty, and its facile connection to purity, is something that I have touched on before, in an article I wrote for this Review on the response of some Žižekians to a picture of Sasha Grey. In that piece, I argued that for many, intellectual engagements seems to be little more than an attempt to assert one’s own subjecthood, which requires others to be relegated to objects. The crass and, on occasion, angry reactions to the picture of Sasha Grey by the Žižekian’s seemed to come from the terror of realising how fungible the barrier between subject and object really was, and how little control you had in staying on your preferred side of that notional line. This is intellectual cruelty: the use of the capacity of intelligence to delineate reality in such away that it increases your agency at the expense of others. A zero sum knowledge game.
The cliché phrase knowledge is power is inaccurate as, so often, it is power that defines what constitutes knowledge. The devotees of the hard-sciences like to say that their methods transcend this corruption. But this is an uneasy truce at best; one that is arguably founded upon the capacity of these disciplines to produce world-ending weapons. Furthermore, this truce is far from airtight, as knowledge that is inconvenient to power can be made to disappear. So what options are afforded those with a little bit of knowledge and nothing but a desire for power? Why, simply assert an understanding of knowledge and intellectual pursuits amenable to those with power.
Harsh criticism of your mistakes is something to be weathered so that your work can be improved; intellectual cruelty is the attempt to foreclose the possibility of such improvements.
As I mentioned before, this latest instance of pit-of-the-stomach-gnawing is one I have felt before. This is something you run the risk of when studying for a PhD. Those times when, at the end of a conference presentation, you take a question that turns out to be a rant about how your work lacks substance because it is insufficiently like other work that the questioner/ranter approves of, is enough to make you want the ground to open up beneath you. In truth, you and your presentation are mere objects upon which the question can assert their subjective agency before the powerful intellectual edifice of the university. This is not to say that intellectual work should not be questioned, only that some questions are referred to, as such, disingenuously. Harsh criticism of your mistakes is something to be weathered so that your work can be improved; intellectual cruelty is the attempt to foreclose the possibility of such improvements.
The pit-of-the-stomach-gnawing is a symptom of a way in which the allure of power has been weaponized to limit the field of possibility; to make an intellectually engaged life appear the preserve of a privileged few. People whose positions are so enshrined by establishments of power and influence that, if they are criticised by an upstart writer, they need not even check that their spin is logically consistent. They need only play into the prejudices of those whose approval they seek.
I don’t agree with the quote from Chesterton above. Intellectual cruelty pales in comparison to, for example, nations and governments, wealthy from centuries of colonial plunder, attempting to retain power by trying to appear the most willing to let children fleeing war drown in the Mediterranean. But if we allow intellectual cruelty to strangle our engagement with the world and our production of possibility, more and greater cruelty always follows.