Intermittently over the last year, I’ve found myself fumbling around an idea about critical temporalities. That is: ideas keep moving, keep developing, even after you’ve locked them down in print or pixels. You continue developing your own ideas, one hopes, but the others who encounter your ideas also develop them as well, often in very new directions. And given how much critical development takes place in the negative (demonstrating the fundamental incorrectness of previously held ideas, as opposed to building beside or on top of those ideas), the conclusion I keep being drawn back to is that everything that we are today arguing will someday be wrong. 1
On the one hand, there’s a bit of a lament in this: the half-life of an idea seems desperately short today; the gap between “that’s just crazy talk” and “that’s a form of received wisdom that must be interrogated” feels vanishingly small. How nice it would be for us to linger in that gap a little longer, to find there some comfortable space between Radical Young Turk and Reactionary Old Guard. To get to be right, just a little bit longer, before those future generations discover to a certainty just how wrong we were.
On the other hand, there’s a perverse freedom in it, and the possibility of an interesting kind of growth. If everything you write today already bears within it a future anterior in which it will have been demonstrated to be wrong, there opens up the possibility of exploring a new path, one along which we develop not just our critical audacity but also a kind of critical humility.
The use of this critical humility, in which we acknowledge the mere possibility that we might not always be right, is in no small part the space it creates for genuinely listening to the ideas that others present, really considering their possibilities even when they contradict our own thoughts on the matter.
Critical humility, however, is neither selected for nor encouraged in grad school. Quite the opposite, at least in my experience: everything in the environment of, e.g., the seminar room made being wrong impossible. Wrongness was to be avoided at all costs; ideas had to be bulletproof. And the only way to ensure one’s own fundamental rightness was to demonstrate the flaws in all the alternatives.
As a result, we were too often trained (if only unconsciously) in a method that encouraged a leap from encountering an idea to dismissing it, without taking the time inbetween to really engage with it. It’s that engagement that a real critical humility can open up: the time to discover what we might learn if we are allowed to let go, just a tiny bit, of our investment in being right.
If time inevitably makes us all wrong, maybe slowing down enough to accept our future wrongness now can help us avoid feeling embittered later on. The position of critical humility is a generous one — not just generous to those other critics whose ideas we encounter (and want to contradict) today, but to our selves both present and future as well.
It’s no accident that I’m thinking about this today, on the cusp of a new year, as I try to imagine what’s ahead and look back on what’s gone by. It’s a moment of letting go of what’s already done and cannot be changed, and of opening up to new, as yet unimagined possibilities ahead. I wish for all of us the space and the willingness to linger in that moment, even knowing how wrong we will someday inevitably have been.
- There is of course the possibility of tomorrow’s wrong idea being critically recuperated the day after, when those arguing its wrongness are themselves demonstrated to be wrong. But this happens much less frequently than does utter dismissal, alas. ↩