How to Write Criticism, A More or Less Practical Guide

Let’s assume that to write criticism we will not apply theories or categories to things. We won’t show how The Wire is Marxist, Blood Orange is neo-R&B, or that Michel Houellebecq is patriarchic.  Let’s assume, rather, that we want to write critically about this program, this album, this novel.

This is not to say that we can’t make use of theories, categories, and genres. We should, and indeed must, make use of what we already know. After all, we come to things as we come to them, knowing what we know, thinking what we think, believing what we believe. There is no objectivity; to evacuate ourselves of ourselves is not the goal, as if such a thing were even possible or even desirable. It’s to say that we won’t begin with these concepts, these ideas, these meta-structures. We’ll begin with the thing at hand.

All things — all texts — are to be read. And, in fact, all things are always already read. That’s what it means to exist: we are things that are perceived and processed just as we relentlessly perceive and process other things. Everything — you, me, these words, the internet, the chair you’re sitting in, the phone in your hands, mosquitoes — is what Deleuze calls a little engine. They make themselves, their way of going.

But where do we begin our critique? Well, there’s no one way in or through a thing. Take this essay here. You could begin anywhere — with the title: Is this a how-to? What is its approach to the how-to? What does it ask of the reader (yes, you)?

Or you could begin with the use of pronouns: Who’s this we Coffeen keeps using? What function does this serve? How does this writer — me, or my name, as the case may be — stand towards you? What is it asking of you? Complicity? But in what, exactly?

You could put aside these more formal aspects for the moment and focus on the content. What does Coffeen mean when he so readily conflates things and texts? How does this play in the course of the essay? What’s at stake by at once distinguishing and conflating things and texts?

Or what about this related claim that everything is always already read? How does this shape or inflect the borders of things, of you and me, or critic and object, of screen and reader, of this essay and you? Is this why he keeps using we? Hmn.

Every text offers multiple ways to begin, multiple doors, as it were. Derrida always loved beginning with some often overlooked element such as a particular word or a footnote. I once wrote on Paul Ricoeur’s book La métaphore vive which is translated as The Rule of Metaphor. That’s where I began: the movement across languages from life to rule. When I wrote about Moonrise Kingdom, I began with the way the camera moves in a scene so as to create a contraption from the interactions on screen. (That essay is here.)

How do you choose to begin with this rather than that? That all depends on what grabs your attention, piques your interest, seizes your fancy.  Begin with what you notice and follow it to see where it takes you. It may take you nowhere interesting. On the other hand, it may open the world itself.

The trick  is to follow that element and ask: So what? What then? So the camerawork in Moonrise Kingdom creates a contraption from scenes. Who cares? Well, I couldn’t help but notice that contraptions, films, and stories share this comment element, the way different things interact with each other so as to propel other behavior. And then it occurred to me that film is actually machinic, both literally (the camera is a machine) and metaphorically (a story is a machine in which different components interact in such a way as to create something, namely, the story itself).  And so I began with this observation — the contraption-like scenes — and ended with the claim that things we don’t normally connect, stories and machines, are in fact intimately related.

What a critic does is account for the different elements of the thing — its what as well as its how. That is, each thing has its qualities — red, loud, funny, tall. And also has the manner in which it puts this what together, its how — the movement of the camera, the voice and structure of the novel, the rhythm of the song. This is where criticism lives and thrives: in that place where the what meets the how and vice versa. 

But then there’s the affective state of the thing, its mood, its tone, its temperament. A book, a film, a song have their what — the story, color, instruments; their how — the structure, voice, rhythm; and their affective flow — humor, wit, melancholy, exuberance. The manner in which something happens is a critical component of that thing. It’s impossible to talk about Nietzsche without accounting for his zealous play, to talk about The Beastie Boys without mentioning their play and humor, to critique The Wire without mentioning the nihilistic humor. 

Or take Moonrise Kingdom. Yes, Wes Anderson finds the machinic quality of stories. But he also finds the opposite: the play within machines. The joy of the film — its humanity and humor — argue for the pathos and richness of the mechanical, a vice versa.   

None of these elements — the what, how, and mood — are proof that your reading is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. No, all of these elements are evidence. And it’s your job as critic to weave them together into some kind of multiple, generous, whole that sheds light on how the thing functions. Which is to say, while your critique may not be right or wrong, it may be out of bounds, off the mark: you might just be making stuff up. Which is not necessarily bad but, alas, is critique.

Criticism is almost puzzle-like only there’s no one way to do it. You assemble all these elements and put them back together in a new way. I suppose, in a sense, to critique is to dj, creating a new composition out of the existing, found elements. It’s playing with the found.

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