4.03.2012

The Practice of Critique

How does one go about critiquing something? 

Well, it entails what is often called systems thinking — the ability to see something as a complex operation amidst other complex operations.  The critic considers many moving factors and how these factors interact with each other and with other bodies and systems.

Let's take a song. And not just any song but a particular song, a song I've written about before: "Some Kinda Love" by the Velvet Underground.  How do we go about critiquing it?



  • What does it say?  
  • How does it say it?  
    • What is its tone — sentimental? Deadpan? Angry? Understated? Smiling?
  • What is the relationship between this what and this how? 
    • How does this how inflect the what?
    • Does it deliver lovelorn sentiment in a deadpan tone? What does this do to us? Does it undermine the lyric? Amplify it? Qualify it? How?
  • What is its affect?  
    • This, of course, comes from the combination of the how and the what.
  • How does it stand towards its audience?  
    • Does it stand back and ask you to watch? Does it alienate you? Piss you off? Include you?  The sub-title to Nietzsche's Zarathustra is "A Book for None and All." Nietzsche doesn't mind alienating his audience; in fact, he often tries to.  What about this song? 
    • Some songs ask us to sing along, to participate — think folk music or even the Dead. What about the Velvet Underground in this song?
    • Some songs beg us to identify — think kids walking down the street rapping Public Enemy (ok, I'm dated). They want to become Chuck D.  What about the VU in this song?
  • How is it situated in its network?   
    • For instance, it is some kind of love song, or so it says. So how does it stand towards other love songs? Towards expectations of love songs? This is tricky as you don't want to create a straw man (ie, "Most love songs are silly..").  Rather, you might want to examine the structure of great love songs. This one, for instance, is not addressed at one person but gives us four characters (at least): Margarita, Tom, the speaker, you. 
  • Now extend its network
    • How does it stand towards love as a concept? As an experience?
    • How does it stand towards songs? What other songs does it conjure?
    • How does it stand towards music? What types of music does it conjure?
Critique, then, considers these factors all at once:
  • Performance:  the relationship between the what and the how
  • Affect: how the song feels — not how it makes you feel but how it feels
  • Posture: how it stand towards the world and towards its audience
  • Network: how it connects with those things it consumes and conjure — ideas, concepts, songs, experiences, words
Reckoning these elements is not a subjective act. On the contrary, it is what Deleuze calls an empirical act: it demands attention, leaning into an event rather than away from it. To know an object — to be objective — is not to stand at a distance but to entwine oneself with the matter at hand.  We know the world from touching the world, not avoiding it (pace Merleau Ponty). To create a good critique demands spending time with the thing, letting it permeate you, infiltrate you, seeing how it mixes with other things you know and think and believe and feel.

Of course — of course! — your critique is tempered by your body, by your perspective. How could it be otherwise?  But your perspective is just that: a view on the scene.  And, as such, is external, not internal (as if there were a clear or relevant distinction between the two — we are always already hailed, as Althusser would say). 

The practice of criticism is just that — a practice. It is a doing; it is a technique; it is an art.

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