For my father, everything was familiar. He had the vantage point from which he could grasp everything. If new information appeared that contradicted what he said, or someone got emotional and acted out (he called it being ‘primitive’ or ‘hysterical’), it was all part of the same vista. Nothing seemed to surprise him; everything had happened before and if it hadn’t it didn’t matter since it wouldn’t make a dent in the general order of things anyway – plus ça change. He admired easygoing landowners in English costume dramas who knew everyone’s place. His favourite saying was ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’, and the rule could be as general as he liked, could absorb any event or emotion, could be made to span life itself. Thus he swept his arm across the horizon, familiarized himself with the world and spared himself the need for thought.
By contrast, when I went to university, everything seemed to be about the exception rather than the rule. We were to learn critical thinking, which seemed mainly to involve focusing on marginal subjects: the margins of traditional academic disciplines and canons, of history, sexuality and language, even of thought itself. It was the focus on the marginal – the exceptions to the governing rules – that was thought to give critical thinking its subversive force. We searched for, wrote and talked about neglected artists and writers and thinkers, about othering and queering, about the abject and the liminal, and so on and on in an endless critical mill. It felt transgressive to learn this new language of critique. We were undermining all foundations and oppressive orthodoxies, even the notion of the stable ‘subject’ itself, the ability to say ‘I’!
I absorbed the unwritten rules of critical thinking very easily. I made sure to use the latest buzzwords and subject my own arguments to the same suspicion I directed at my subject matter, to the point where I wasn’t saying much at all. In the end, I remember, I saw writing essays as more of an aesthetic exercise than an intellectual one. I did what I needed to get good grades.
By constantly expanding the limits of thought, critical thought paradoxically seemed to lose its critical force. In the end, it seemed, it didn’t have much more to offer than restless revisions of the jargon of the exceptional and interrogations of texts that dared to express real views and emotions. As the forms of critical thinking took the place of any nourishing content of thought (and what could that possibly mean for us?), it was preparing us perfectly for what was already happening in the ‘real’ world, where capital was at work to erase the borders between the centre and the margins without our help – bringing the outside in and the inside out. Critical thinking was preparing our minds for what we’d soon be fully immersed in. For in the ‘real’ world the exception could no longer be used to prove or break down anything, since the exception was becoming the norm – and the norm was to be absorbed, not into my father’s rule, but into dispersal and precarity.