We have a tendency to imagine criticism as No saying, an articulation of what's wrong with something or someone. But that's not how I see it at all. Critique is generous, loving, life affirming. In fact, I'd argue that the popular image of critique is driven by a certain No-saying ideology.
Consider a thing, anything. Let's say a chair. Well, what is that chair? We can say that chair is a chair long before that particular chair is made. There is an idea of chair, says a-hard-to-trust-because-he's-so-ironic Plato. It's an ideal chair and therefore formless. It is Form without form. And, from this idea, a chair maker creates a chair. That chair — like the one you're sitting in — is an example, a derivation, of the idea of chair that is eternal and universal.
Maybe. But Nietzsche comes along and says, Oy! That Plato is such a nihilist! He sees all of life as a pale replica of an ideal world in which there are no chairs, no people, no things. Just ideas, or Ideas, or Forms, but no forms. Life happens here, says Nietzsche. Life is embodied, even if it's also ideas, concepts, moods, notions, imagination. Life is historical; life is of time, in time, with time. The happening of life is time happening. Life happens at the speed of life.
So let's consider that chair again. For Plato, a chair is only a chair in as much as it derives from a universal, eternal chair. But, for Nietzsche, the chair is the chair only in as much as it is embodied, as it has form, as it is seen and touched and decays. The chair, for Nietzsche, is not. The chair becomes.
This Nietzschean affirmation becomes phenomenology in the hands of Merleau-Ponty. As the name suggests, phenomenology begins with events, with things (that distinction may or may not be redundant), rather than with concepts, ideas, Forms. A thing, such as a chair, is a differential equation, an infinite trajectory through and of time, an infinite trajectory of becoming: it goes like this. This thing exists only as much as it happens — as it's seen, licked, loved, desired, eaten, sat in.
|A thing is a differential equation, in motion along this or that trajectory.|
As embodied, a thing is not that which is seen from nowhere but that which is seen from an infinity of perspectives. A thing is run through, at every point, by perspectives of other embodied things. A thing is always already participating in the world; it knows no innocence.
There is no ideal form of chair. There are chairs. There is chair-becoming. When I sit on a log, it becomes a chair. When I burn that log, it becomes firewood. A thing is as it goes with other things. There is no one center of Chair; there are as many centers as there are chairs, more or less. Every chair redefines chair. Every chair is at the center. The center, indeed, cannot hold — not across time and place. There are infinite centers. Each chair takes up certain aspects of chair and recreates what chair can be. Deleuze calls this repetition (which he distinguishes from Platonic re-presentation). A thing exists within a network rather than a hierarchy.
|Platonic representation is a hierarchy. Deleuzian/phenomenological repetition is a network.|
Every takes up chair but asks very different things of us, its sitters, as well as different things of chairs in general. Look:
|Every chair recasts, repeats, chair. Every chair is the center of chair. |
There is no ideal Form; there are only infinite repetitions.
Often, a thing loses its power over time to inspire new uses. We get so used to a certain notion of a chair that we forget that a chair is not, that chair is only what we do with it, how we do with it. Once in a while, someone comes along and changes how we think about chairs. Some have even argued of late that the chair is murderous, killing human kind. Some make a chair something that should be lounged in; other chairs disallow slouching all together. Sit up straight!
So, where was I? Oh, yeah, criticism. If a thing is in as much as it is run through perspectives, different perspectives extend that thing, repeat it, create it. This can take the form of an essay, photograph, speech, joke, design, production. Charlie Chaplin extends the way of the cane (I remember Deleuze talking about this but I can't remember where). Pollock reorganizes the body's relationship to art, beginning with the hand and letting the eye follow rather than the other way around.
To see something anew is not a luxury, an excess, and after the fact. A thing is as it goes in the world. When the world does something new with the thing, it finds new life. And this is what I consider critique: taking up some aspect of the world and seeing it anew, seeing it fresh. Van Gogh is a great critic of the sunflower. Foucault brought sex back to life — not to mention knowledge itself — by seeing repression as productive. Nietzsche turns Christianity into nihilism, a nifty move that splays the world. Mies van der Rohe made sitting luxurious while Herman Miller sought to make it productive again. All these moments are productive cogs within the engine of a thing's becoming, an inflection point within the trajectory, forging new tendrils and paths of possibility.
To critique is to see the world anew and, in so doing, to (re)create it. Critique doesn't think or write about the world. Critique creates the world.