I am writing this blog post in my capacity as a member of the organizing team of the symposium, but also as someone who would identify oneself as a critical scholar. Considering that the word “critical” can evoke negative connotations at a time when criticism of common truths is often thought to be what only conspiracy theorists do, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon this word “critical” that is found in the title of the UArctic Thematic Network, and therefore in the symposium title as well. Let us take a moment to consider how the word can be used in a positive, constructive, sense, instead of its now perhaps more common negative and destructive sense, and how this positive aspect of critical scholarship was present in the first Critical Arctic Studies Symposium. First, let us take a brief critical look at the word “critical” itself.
What does it mean to be critical?
In a paper published in 2004, and which in many ways is even more relevant today, Bruno Latour discusses the apparent crisis of criticism. In the paper, Latour (2004) makes the point that critique has apparently run out of steam because the constructivist critique of scientific facts has been turned on its head by being appropriated by conspiracy theorists and other extremists to undermine good scientific evidence. As a response, he suggests that we should not abandon criticism, but to rework it. As he puts it:
My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism. (Latour 2004: 231; italics in original)
In order to move closer to facts, Latour suggests that we should embrace an approach that deals with matters of concern, rather than matters of fact, the impetus of which “will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care” (Latour 2004: 232). In order to make the distinction clearer, Latour draws on Heidegger’s work on the word thing: “A thing is, in one sense, an object out there and, in another sense, an issue very much in there, at any rate, a gathering” (Latour 2004: 233; italics in original). This entails that rather than focusing on undermining the objectivity of things as objects, the critical task of the critic would be to become involved in fostering the shared concern on the objectivized thing as an issue. In short, according to Latour this means that:
The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. (Latour 2004: 246)
Next, I would like to reflect on how these insights by Latour can be utilized to unpack the first Critical Arctic Studies Symposium.
A positively critical Critical Arctic Studies Symposium?
The symposium itself collected scholars and artists from various backgrounds together, and had over fifty presentations, as well as two keynote speeches. To me it seems apparent that throughout the symposium, a two-fold process of assembling was underway: various conceptual and methodological approaches were presented to turn matters of fact, such as the Arctic or the human—nature dichotomy, into matters of concern, while making the concepts and methodologies matters of concern themselves. Considered through this understanding of the critical in Critical Arctic Studies, whether or not we intended to do it, at the symposium we reworked the very notion of the Arctic vis-à-vis critical scholarship as we engaged with different “Arctic” phenomena through a plethora of onto-epistemological and methodological perspectives within the presentations and discussions that formed the backbone of the event. What became revealed, I would argue, was not the Arctic, per se, but the multiplicity of ways that we can engage with the Arctic that is place-based, lived, living, differentiated, and more-than-human.
In accordance with Latour’s definition, we, as the organizers of the symposium, therefore also performed the task of a critic in offering an arena in which not only the human participants of the symposium came together, but in which also the theories, concepts, methods, empirical materials and the human and non-human “actors” that came together in forming these materials gathered. In many ways, it is this wider understanding of gathering as the gathering of many things in addition to the symposium participants, that depicts the true value of the first Critical Arctic Studies Symposium.
Put together, the above notions show what critical science in general, and Critical Arctic Studies in particular, can achieve when the word critical is understood positively: it can foster new ways of engaging, and living with the world. Indeed, what I would like to suggest here is that by redeeming the positive meaning of the word critical, we, as critical Arctic scholars can fight against the politics of depoliticization that is continuously delegitimizing critique. Through this fight, we can politicize issues, which in a positive sense denotes promoting discussion on the effects that specific taken-for-granted ways of thinking (or doing research!) may have, and reworking these ways in a care-full manner, and based on sound ethical principles. This, to me, seemed to be at the heart of the symposium.
Vesa Väätänen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland. With a background in Political Geography, Vesa currently works in the project “A Planetary Approach to Global Arctic Politics”, and was a member of the organizing team of the first Critical Arctic Studies Symposium. In his research, Vesa seeks to develop critical approaches to more-than-human Arctic politics through the key geographical concepts of region, place and space, which he builds upon in conceptualizing the socio-material relationality of policy practices.
Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30: 2, 225—248
News image: A word cloud generated from the titles and abstracts of the presentations in the first Critical Arctic Studies Symposium. The word cloud illustrates how the symposium acted as a gathering for not only researchers and artists, but also for words, concepts, theories and methods that were not taken at face value as matters of fact, but treated critically as matters of concern.
Read the original blog post on the Critical Arctic Studies website.