“[…] possibilities for happiness today turn on the capacity to move beyond an “all or nothing” approach that subsumes everything under the dualism of capitalism and the revolutionary alternative to capitalism. […] Non-binary resistance requires deconditioning oneself from what Mark Fisher has termed “depressive hedonia”- and inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. Being happy is a way of life, not a goal that capitalism disseminates and promises to fulfil. Being happy is a practice of de-alienation and rehumanisation.”

Zoénie Liwen Deng, Be Water, My Friend1

In her Phd thesis Be Water, My Friend, Zoénie Liwen Deng uses the term ‘non-oppositional criticality’ to describe socially engaged artistic practices in China, which are critical of the status quo in a way that is not directly opposing the system, so as to evade censorship and repression. These practices often focus on manifesting otherwise ways of relating to each other, of doing things together, of organising in ways that slightly deviate from the paradigm put forward by the authorities. Quoting Irit Rogoff who describes criticality in contrast to criticism and critique as “operating from an uncertain ground of actual embeddedness”2, Zoénie elaborates that this uncertainty emerges from defying the oppositional logic of either being ‘inside or outside a system, either working with or working against the authorities’.3 This resonates with the notion of the Undercommons, described by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Working 'with and against' the university (or whatever context one wants to focus on), the Undercommons is always already present, representing modes of relating to each other that are not subsumed, that are maybe unsubsumable.4

What interests me about the projects that Zoénie writes about is that instead of merely criticising, they aim to experiment with and embody alternative realities. An approach that could release us from the paralysing effect of critique and offer action perspectives, how marginal and insular they might be, instead. That being said, I firmly believe that oppositional criticality - understanding how certain forms of power work and opposing them directly - is necessary and can operate alongside modes of non-oppositional criticality.

The non-oppositional criticality Zoénie describes is a reaction to a very specific political context of censorship and repression, one that differs quite a lot from the strategies of appropriation in the western (art) context. How to deal with the specificities of this context? Protest, dissent, if it follows the rules and remains controllable, in the best case even appropriatable, is even encouraged. In The Proliferation of Margins, Felix Guattari describes how "integrated world capitalism" is based on flexibility and adaptability, how "a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.”5 This is especially true in the context of art institutions, where criticism gets constantly appropriated and fuels the need of art institutions to stay relevant, as happened with institutional critique. I realised that what intrigued me was not so much the non-oppositional aspect of the projects Zoénie describes, as the affirmative aspects, and the shift from critique to criticality.

1 Deng, Zoénie Liwen. Be Water, My Friend: Non-oppositional criticalities of socially engaged art in urbanising China. 2020. UvA, PhD thesis.
2 Rogoff, Irit. “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality.” Transversal texts, 2003, https://transversal.at/pdf/journal-text/1364/. Accessed 22 May 2022.
3 In the introduction to The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, “The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons” (pp.5-12), Jack Halberstam describes the undercommons with the example of music “[...] you are always already in the thing you call for and that calls you. What’s more, the call is always a call to dis-order and this disorder or wildness shows up in many places: in jazz, in improvisation, in noise. The disordered sounds that we refer to as cacophony will always be cast as “extra-musical”, as Moten puts it, precisely because we hear something in them that reminds us that our desire for harmony is arbitrary and in another world, harmony would sound incomprehensible. Listening to cacophony and noise tells us that there is a wild beyond to the structures we inhabit and that inhabit us.”, p.7.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2003.
4 Guattari, Felix. “The Proliferation of Margins.” Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, edited by Sylvère Lothringer and Christian Marazzi, semiotext(e), 1980.