The Generosity of Criticism

One night, I found myself in my regular bar surprised to find there was an amateur stand up comedy event happening. The young comedians were not very good — they were aping the all too familiar tropes. But one comedian broke from his script a couple of times to engage the audience — which was a tad rambunctious — and in those brief moments he showed signs of vitality. 

I wanted to discuss his act with him. I didn't just want to say good job or, for that matter, shitty job — because what do either of those things accomplish? I wanted to talk about what worked and what didn't, his ethos, his rhythm, how he stands towards other comedians, comedy in general, how he wants to stand towards the crowd, what his desired terms of engagement are.  Which is to say, I wanted to critique his performance.

But there was no way, socially, I could do that — at least in my position as some random dude drinking at the bar. From strangers, from the general audience, we expect either thumbs up or thumbs down or a so-so.  Now, he may very well be right not to listen to me — who the heck am I? — but that's not my point. My point is that we expect judgment from each other but when it comes to critique, we take offense. 

And this just seems insane as what is more generous than critique? It demands time and energy, a lending of oneself to the performance of another. Judgment leans back in its chair and, exerting the bare minimum of energy, points a thumb up or down. But critique leans forward in its chair, poised and attentive, heeding and contemplating, digesting and imagining. 

To say whether you like or dislike something is, alas, not very interesting to anyone outside of your immediate circle of friends. To them, the mere fact of you liking something might say quite a bit. After all, they know your taste, what you've liked and disliked in the past and, hopefully, why. You have a style; you are an algorithm of selection. But to anyone not familiar with this algorithm, the passing of judgment is as boring as a stranger's dream.

To be critical is to go with something. It is to make sense of its style, how it metabolizes the world, what it takes up and how. It doesn't just say, "Cool" or "Duh." It lends its own body to the performance, follows its moves and motivations.  To reckon the style of a thing — of a booze, book, or band — is to fully digest that thing, let it run through you to see what kind of sense you can make of it. And then to extend that sense, to follow it beyond this performance to see how it can go, its possibilities and extensions. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was teaching MFA students in fine arts was to do studio visits, especially as I'm not a visual artist. I'd go to the student's studio and look at work in whatever state  and lend some words. Imagine, now, if all I said was, "That's good! I like it!" or "Man, that's not good." Both are equally worthless. My job and my pleasure — a rare alignment of the two — was to articulate what I saw happening and then wonder how else it might go, what other trajectories it might take, how it might inflect the world. 

Judgment has little to do with the other; it is solipsistic. And, often, that is great — after all, few things are worthy of one's time and energy, worthy of one's critique. Like it or hate it and move on. Judgment is brutal and callous — whether you like something or hate it — and as such can be a good parry for a world full of shit (although I prefer indifference to judgment — less energy expenditure). 

Critique, on the other hand, is generous: it engages the other on its own terms — or on terms of the event.  It lets the other do its thing and then wonders how the other can extend it and it, in turn, can extend the other. It is a glorious repartee.  

I had a former art student of mine ask me to write about his work even though he knew I didn't necessarily like it (I'd been hard on him in class). And, without batting an eye, I agreed. Because whether I liked it or not, I knew that he was up to something and that spending time with that something would push me, teach me, extend me. I wrote one of my favorite essays from that experience as his work asked me to think and see and experience differently. And I, in turn, asked it — and him — to think and see and experience differently. 

I'd like to say that to critique is, quite literally, to make love.

The things I love exist beyond judgement (isn't that what love is — to take something up without judgement?) They live in a place where things flourish in the totality of their becoming, multifarious and glorious and strange. They live in a place of critique. I don't even need to conjure them: they live in me. They are me. 

Unfortunately, we don't teach being critical. I know as I taught critical writing for 10 years at UC Berkeley and had to negotiate 18 year olds who'd had 18 years of ill training. Across the board, they had no idea what being critical meant or demanded. Teaching them was like teaching an alien the infield fly rule (and I loved almost every moment of it). Critical thinking is simply not a part of American education.
As a nation, we don't read or hear much that is critical. Thumbs up, thumbs down; like, dislike: this is how we engage the world. For the most part, we experience judgment and a regurgitation of the known — I'm liberal but he's not so I hate him!

Critical practice is all but dead, murdered by cliche and vapidity and the royal ease of judgment. It's become so bad that we associate being critical not just with being judgmental but being an asshole about it. (No doubt, it's not in capital's or power's best interest to teach criticism.)

But if we want to be a vital society — or you just want to be a vital human being —, then we must learn to forgo judgment and take up being critical, take up being generous and thoughtful, take up the will to proliferate and extend possibilities: take up the love of life. 


dustygravel said...

I think it's a great idea to go up to a performer after a performence and tell them what you think. I've made a long practice of this, and I think I intutively exsept this role as a spectator because it's exactly what I want when I perform. Good feedback. When I perform music I want it to be conversationsl, argumenetive, questianing even.

So when something moves me I hope over to the performer who is usally taking down equipment, and I just tell them what I thought was the most remarkable moment in the performence, then we usely talk a little shop and we both walk away gaining something. It was always a wanderd to me why I didn't see more people doing these thing. I guess they didn't want to feel like a fun. Isn't it humiliating to be a fun!? Man I'm writing this at work and I just looked out the window -damb theres alot of cigaret buts on the side walk tonight. A lady is yelling down the halls "make that man stop touching my brain!"(the nature of my work)

drwatson said...

This one is tough for me. I play a lot of music and there are people that I'd listen to and people that I wouldn't. I guess it's all about the spirit of the critique - I don't think most people critique generously; in fact, most people think the word "critique" implies negativity, which makes sense given that they most often are.

But of course there is no reason why critique should exist this way - I wonder if bad movie reviewers are to blame?

umpolung said...

I think a lot of the time these days we sacrifice criticism in the name of efficiency and the cleanness of a binary judgment. Consider the most trivial case, between a "Like" and a "Dislike" on YouTube. There are so many different things that go into a person's liking or not liking something. And it's never the case that we wholly like or dislike something without any reservations. Yet, the world beckons us to respond — Like, Dislike, or remain indifferent. Offer a critique, and many will respond "Yes, but what do you actually think about it?" It makes us comfortable to know that we "agree" (even if that agreement is based on a wholesale abandonment of the complex reasons and beliefs that led us to choose for or against). So much of the so-called "criticism" that comes up after the fact (political debates, YouTube comments, or what have you) seems like an attempt to "reconstruct" this information that was present before one's decision was made, but it inevitably ends up reaffirming the collapse of this information to a binary decision, because one is linked with others by this binarity, not by some correlation of a complex set of opinions and beliefs.

So, we're not alone, but we are united in a rather perverse sense. Perhaps this is why people so often (as you and drwatson point out) use criticism as a pejorative almost all of the time.

I think that true criticism involves a going along with the person or thing or work in such a way that one never collapses these complex distinctions into a single "Yes/no" answer. That's what makes it such an effort — not only do you have to navigate the unfamiliar territory of another's beliefs/aesthetics/way of going, you can also never be through navigating — you never know where it will go next; to assume it will go a certain away is to assume its kinship with yourself, that you know it well enough that you can predict, that you no longer need to pay critical attention to the thing.

umpolung said...

This also might be what makes criticism so tiring: it's a constant extension of oneself to something outside and, by definition, so long as it never collapses to some boring binary distinction, it is never completed. And it's in this sense that I don't think it's ever right to compare two things as being strictly "better" or "worse" than one another. Sure, you can talk about music and say that a singer is better or worse than another singer because one signs on key while the other is always all over the place. But this keyness is the only nexus of intersection between them. What does "better" even mean in this sense? The desire to rank is, in my opinion, just a slightly more complex manifestation of reducing a multiplicity of irreconcilable distinctions between two entities into something that can be quantified and ordered, like a mathematical set.

Sure, we can have our "top-10" lists of whatever, but it's only fair to have these when we realize that it's a wholly subjective distinction, and that the only argument for making others agree with this ordering is the degree to which they approximate us as thinkers and in our aesthetic sensibilities. And since no two people are ever alike, the approximation can never obtain, even though it might creep toward it asymptotically.

The only fair way to judge a thing objectively, to me, is to judge it in light of what it purports (or seems to one's best approximation) to do, to achieve, to demonstrate. There are the obvious cases where irrelevant criticism is absurd (e.g. not being able to communicate in ASL with your eyes closed), but in other more subtle cases, people often leverage similar arguments to draw these strange, normative conclusions about the "goodness" of a thing. And that's what makes criticism so tiresome. What do we have to show for it if we cannot draw some absolute distinction? It is almost as though it's done for the mere sake of criticism, or for the mere joy and introspection that we can achieve by engaging another person on his or her level for a time.

I think this is getting a little disjointed now but hopefully it's a little clear what I'm trying to say...

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: There are those beautiful moments where strangers who've just been intimate via a performance enjoy the intimacy of critique. It's like someone touching my brain, only I don't want her to stop.

@ Dr: Yep yep: I'm trying to rescue critique from the hegemony of judgment. And, yes, I think Ebert is to blame. Of course, he's a symptom, as well.

@ umpolung: So many great things here — the incompleteness is a great, great point. Critique doesn't exhaust; it multiplies and rotates.

But I don't think it's a matter of subjective vs. objective. Critique is always objective as it's a perspective on something. But it is circumstantial meaning what I love now I might not love tomorrow. I wrote about this a while back: http://hilariousbookbinder.blogspot.com/2011/02/speaking-emphatically-amidst-flux-on.html.

So not just incomplete but uncertain, even when most emphatic.

dustygravel said...

Op! I meant that folks don't like looking like fans. Not fun.

dustygravel said...

Is there something of objectification to critique? Is it that you want the subject of the critique to be objective? To get them to take the birds eye view or your view in thinking of their oun work? The first thing I think when I find my self in appreciation of another's work is how do I get them to know that I really see them. What a scary place to be seen by a stranger towards the ends of objectification and critque. Is there not the elument of reductionism in critque as well? Does a good critque make the subject small manageable set of objects?

Should a critque that proliferates possibilities get past these pit falls or would it lead the critic into a manegtarian role?

When I talk to a performer I say something like, I noteced how the gutair rhithum kind of lunges for ward and then brakes apart and then you just jump back in right on cue- its Rad I've never heard that before.

Man! Now that you got me thinking of critque in terms of music and comidy I'm wonering how this differs from the way I critque philosophy. Would we have the same trepedation if we had to critque maurice merleau ponty after a stand up porformence? Is writing a buffer here? Are all these things beyond description? Or is there a way to multiply the humer of your comedian? Is multiplication in this case kind of destructive to the subject and object of the comidy and as a resolt destructive to the comedians act?

dustygravel said...

destructive to the comedians act and there for to their indviguality. I mean what would your comedian think if he was no longer the subject of your interaction but that instead his routine was being reworked into oblivion ? I wonder if he would feel the displacement.....

Linz said...

First of all, I love this.

Second of all, and this is a total tangent, but lately I've been noticing your use of "I'd like to say." It primes me for some kind of qualifier - "I'd like to say...but I won't quite say it because..." - but then it doesn't deliver. But in a good way.

umpolung said...

That's a really good point…I didn't think of that. Maybe it's me subconsciously wanting to divide between subjective and objective! That nothing is really one of the two. So funnily enough, in talking about how it's bad to simply draw distinctions I made one of those distinctions part of my argument. I wonder if it happens with words and their definitions, too…so a proper critique not only has to take care not to pigeonhole by putting the thing in a certain class of things, but also in the way that it's described. So maybe you can minimize the extent of the generalization with proper description and not making any "sweeping" judgments, but I wonder if words, at their very basis (by their sort of self-referential definitions — if you look up the definitions of the words in a definition you eventually end up getting back to the same words) can't escape this binarity. And then it would make sense why rhetors tend to be the best critics…sort of like a master chef, they have an intuitive sense of which words fit where by studying how other people put them together.

As you said with the high school students, it doesn't come naturally (and I definitely didn't have the capacity in high school either). Maybe that's why some people feel as though college education doesn't really "teach" anything concrete (well, this is sort of a controversial view, but just for the sake of argument…) — rather, it just explodes all these binarities that you once believed into a multiplicity of other definitions that are themselves binarities (though less "pervasive" and "sweeping" by virtue of the number of things they include or apply to). I tend to experience this whenever I'm on the phone with my parents and they ask "So what did you learn this week?" In high school it's straightforward: the quadratic equation, how to differentiate. In college it's more like "Well, in this particular case of this one thinker, he thinks this, but another thinker thinks that, and so they're sort of odds and we talked about how to reconcile them." Sort of like fireworks, where a bullet becomes a bouquet. Or, in a way, a sort of regression. Or if you're a Platonist, sort of like ascending the ladder to the forms, but then realizing that it's an inverse pyramid, and that the forms are more or less "infinite" and have been "watered-down" so that we can manage to get by in the world at all.

Either new words are needed, or new ways of putting together old words. Or maybe the only "genuine" critique of a painting is a painting. But that doesn't seem quite right, though it's a nice idea. So maybe it's just that all of these generalizations are inevitable in anything we do, but if we want to be generous and not make snap-judgments, we just have to minimize them as best as we can and within the limits of what we're trying to do (e.g. a book vs an essay vs a too-long blog comment on An Emphatic Oomph)!

That's why I like reading your blog. Rather than asking something like the Socratic Question — "What is X? Are you sure that's X? I don't think that's X, try again." it leaves open multiple possibilites of engagement. I think that's what good teaching is, too. It's not vague simply because it's broad, but in fact the opposite — in a sense, vagueness is a compliment, if it means that there are multiple modes left open to engage a topic. If you're trying to concretize something, then perhaps it's a bad thing, but otherwise, it seems to be the only way to actually connect with others' ideas…it sort of makes it easier to get on the same playing field rather than spending the whole time trying to decipher (and never being sure) of the author's original intended meaning.

umpolung said...

P.S. I am responding in between writing a ton of papers (finals), so I apologize that these comments are more or less mental vomit. I'm also pretty sure that Nietzsche has already said everything I just wrote, and more succinctly to boot, but hey, we can't all be Nietzsches.

Daniel Coffeen said...

So many things to say. First of all, @Linz: I've been attracted to that construction — its testifies to the experience of being drawn to a word, "I want to say..." or 'I'd like to say..." That is, there is desire but that does not mean there is certainty of even knowledge. It marks a juncture, a negotiation with kairos: is this the right word?

@ everyone else: Criticism is ahuman; it is an act of becoming, it initiates becoming, it extends becoming. It happens in an in between space, neither subject nor object. Although I want to say — ha! — that it is objective in that it reckons the object. I am, in fact, more comfortable with objectivity — being of the object — than subjectivity. I'm not sure what the fuck subjectivity is. I suppose it's the very private, ineffable morass of affect that swirls inchoate in my bowels of becoming.

Or something.

So, yes, the comedian or author is not recognized by the critic — all that matters is the performance. Critique is post-identity sense making. So, yes, this pay piss off or scare the creator.

But this again speaks to my desire to make criticism a more common practice, a taught practice. This means not only knowing how to critique but knowing how to be critiqued — which may be the more difficult task.

Will Shetterly said...

I think the greatest problem the critic has is criticism's impetus isn't engagement; it's arrogance. It's not love; it's the desire to possess. The critic claims to be able to improve something, and the critic may be right about that claim, but that doesn't give the critic the right to make the claim.

Will Shetterly said...

I should, perhaps, add that I love great critics. Humans criticize. It's how we learn.

But the world would be a better place if critics always engaged with humility. After all, they'd have nothing to do if someone hadn't done them the favor of creating something that caught their interest.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Will Shetterly: Jeez, I hope I made it clear that I was talking about a different kind of critique, a critique that doesn't know better but rather wants to play. Once you invoke "rights," it seems to imply authorship and propriety. But a text is everyone's and anyone's. A text is an invitation to play and a critic is he who loves to play. It's not about knowing better; it's about extending and amplifying.

Is there something called criticism which is arrogant? Absolutely. I hope I'm distinguishing this practice from that.

Will Shetterly said...

Hmm. Let's take this further: A creator puts something in public. People have a right to do what they please with it and talk about it with others, of course, but do they have a right to tell the creator what they think of it?

In a most basic sense, sure. But it's rude. Is the situation any different than this:

A person walks into a public space. Do you have the right to tell them they have a cute ass, but they should get a chin job and never wear green? Does it help if you assure them that you think they're really hot and you're only doing this because you want them to be even more like what you like?

It's not illegal. But it's arrogant as can be.

Mind you, there are ways to create relationships in which you can tell people about their strengths and weaknesses when they invite you to. But assuming you can go up to strangers and critique them? I can't think of any way to do that that isn't ultimately arrogant, no matter how polite or friendly you might be.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Absolutely. I think that was my point: there is no socially graceful way of offering critique. It is always assumed to be arrogant or to be taken personally. And this is what distinguishes a performance from a body: a performance is for all, a body is not. While the line between the two may be blurry at time, I think we can safely draw the distinction.

But I don't think criticism is inherently arrogant or knowing. It is participatory. And radically democratic: it assumes we all have equal access to the same skills, to the same right to articulate and play.

Again, in the current discourse of critique, it is arrogant. That is what I would like to change.

Will Shetterly said...

But how do you change the discourse? When you discuss criticizing a student, you're talking about what you've been invited to do. Consent has been given. The situation is not at all analogous to criticizing an artist who only knows you as a member of the audience.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, choosing the right time and tenor of critique is part of the challenge, always. I am not suggesting that we critique everything, always, to each other. That would be absurd.

But I am suggesting that we can shift the terms of how we imagine criticism — dispose of the likes and dislikes on websites, the thumbs up and thumbs down for movie reviews; we can engage films and books and music more thoroughly with friends and strangers. In other words, if more people start practicing critique, then the discourse necessarily shifts.

And, to boot, I'd like to create a syllabus on critical thinking for high schools.

Will Shetterly said...

Ah, we can agree on teaching critical thinking in high school.